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Public Trust is Today’s Currency in the Social Sector

The Independent Sector recently released a new report, Trust in Civil Society: Understanding the factors driving trust in nonprofits and philanthropy, which claims that public trust is today’s currency of the nonprofit sector. While the study found that the majority of Americans have confidence in the sector’s ability to improve society as a whole, and that nonprofits will “do the right thing,” the distinct polarization that we see throughout other facets of contemporary American society also pervades the social sector. The respondents were divided when it came to whether or not the sector is moving in the right direction. According to the study, fewer than half believe nonprofits really are headed in the right direction.

Among the findings in the report, nonprofits generally enjoy fairly widespread support and trust, but somewhat less so in communities that are underserved, where respondents who are less affluent, less educated, and in more need of social services provided by nonprofits reside. But even then, the level of trust among this population has increased in recent years. And while the public is uncertain about the direction the sector, there is also no alternative—no other sector or industry is better poised to do this work. For these reasons, the report concludes that understanding, managing, and strengthening trust is the top priority for nonprofit organizations, and an invaluable asset that the social sector must vigilantly safeguard.

Respondents also indicated that having a personal connection with someone within a nonprofit increased their trust in that organization, and that trust can be strengthened by demonstrating integrity and purpose. Finally, the survey findings lead to the discovery of the correlation between trust and engagement, which is manifest in activities such as voting, volunteerism, and charitable giving. Organizations that experience high trust receive more charitable contributions and have more volunteer engagement. However, this does not at all diminish the need for nonprofits to consistently and actively engage with their constituents and create positive experiences, which also positively impact trust.

Where Data and Trust Intersect

Communities have historically depended on nonprofits to provide resources that are trustworthy and services that are rooted in altruism. The sector is solving challenges with no intent or motivation of monetary gain (with the exception of social enterprises, which redeploy portions of their profits to achieve more mission outcomes). As a result, nonprofit organizations have a unique advantage as it pertains to trust. From providing reliable information that has been vetted, services that save and improve lives, environmental protection efforts, and sanctuary and shelter for individuals, the social sector is generally perceived as holding the trust standard high.

The study goes on to pinpoint two opportunities for nonprofits to increase trust: a perceived lack of transparency and financial impropriety. Many respondents indicated a decrease in trust when they do not hear social impact stories, or when they perceive that the organization is not operating from a position of transparency, especially as it relates to its finances. But the good news is that nonprofits can combat these misperceptions (or address an organization’s past mistakes), by implementing a data collection and reporting solution. By telling compelling stories of social impact and sharing data in a timely, relevant, and transparent ways with stakeholders and participants, nonprofits can more easily gain and enhance public trust. Nonprofits can inspire confidence by using data that demonstrate how they are accomplishing mission outcomes and that show how they are responsible stewards of the community’s and other stakeholders’ resources.

How the Social Sector Can Influence the Trajectory of Trust

According to the report, there are several actionable steps that nonprofits can take to alter the trajectory of public trust for the better. From demonstrating impact, transparency and integrity and being clear as to the purpose and mission of the organization, to engaging communities in relatable ways through broadly and clearly communicating stories of impact (and the data to back up those stories), trust can be established, maintained, and strengthened. The report also establishes these four dimensions and outlines several corresponding behaviors as being key to building trust: ability, dependability, integrity, and purpose.

SureImpact empowers mission-driven organizations to manage, measure, and communicate their unique social impact. We provide a cloud-based solution that has been specifically designed for the social sector, coupled with custom consulting, to help organizations like yours accelerate social change and enhance trust from the insights out. If you are ready to take ownership of your organization’s trajectory of its most invaluable asset, we invite you to contact us today.


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