Getting Real About Rebuilding Trust

The latest Edelman Trust Barometer -- which measures levels of trust in 27 countries -- reports that trust in non-governmental organizations has fallen to a new five-year low. Still the most trusted in comparison to government, media and business, this recent survey is bad news for nonprofits.

According to the Edelman research, a big factor in the decline of trust in nonprofits is people's belief that these organizations have become too focused on fundraising and money and operate too much like businesses. A sense of the public good is missing.

This finding corresponds with my own research over the years. In a series of research studies and on-the-ground work in communities across the country, my own organization has found that too many nonprofits have turned inward, focusing on their own survival, positioning, image, turf battles and seizing credit. Many organizations believe this inward focus is their ticket to earning greater support. But the fact is that these behaviors only lead to becoming more disconnected from the very communities these groups seek to serve.

What can we do, then, to rebuild trust?

First and foremost, we must turn outward and make community, not our conference room, the reference point for our choices and actions. Otherwise, we will continue to be mired in the same old conversation. We will continue to look to things like better public relations, better branding and messaging, better indicators and metrics, and better social media campaigns like the now famous "Ice Bucket Challenge" as silver bullet solutions to building trust.

To be sure, those things are all important, but by themselves will not produce the kind of trust that we need to move communities forward. Indeed, if pursued absent certain conditions, these efforts also can, despite our best intentions, push organizations and groups even farther away from people and communities.

Turning the tide on declining trust will require nonprofits to be closely attuned to the communities they serve and reflect what matters to people. Here are five important considerations for any leader who wants to get real about rebuilding trust:

1. Trust is rooted in reality. Some time ago I wrote a book, Hope Unraveled, which traced people's 20-year retreat from community life and politics. The essence of the book was that people felt that their reality was no longer reflected in the public square. Building trust requires understanding and reflecting people's reality in what we do and say. This is not about taking surveys or hosting town halls; it's about gaining a deep appreciation of people's aspirations and concerns and ensuring that our efforts actually address the realities in which people live their daily lives.

2. Trust is rooted in relationships. I vividly remember a host of people in different communities where I've done research and on-the-groundwork saying to me: "I don't trust that leader or group because they only come around when they need something" or "They always toot their own horn but what have they done for the community?" or "They came into our community and then left us in the lurch." Trust is formed when people believe we have their best interests at heart -- not our own -- and when we engage with them over time. It requires showing up and engaging in consistent ways. Isn't this what all good relationships are about?

3. Trust is rooted in a track record. Too often we believe that if we simply talk about trust, or create a new slogan that seeks to convey it that trust will form. Other times we can make assumptions that if we create a new initiative or program or even community conversation that these efforts by themselves will re-establish trust. And yet trust forms only when people see results; when they sense that we are living up to our pledges and promises. This requires follow-through and time. We must think in terms of creating track records, not single efforts.

4. Trust is rooted in people being engaged as "builders." "Individual engagement" is a big topic nowadays. Nonprofits typically see people in communities as untapped resources for volunteering, advocating and donating. But often these efforts envision people as cogs in the wheels of a nonprofit; people are there to support, even serve the nonprofit. But this equation must be flipped on its head if we want to re-engage and re-connect people and generate new, lasting levels of trust. We must see people as "builders" with the intrinsic ability to get things done together. Indeed, people are now yearning to be part of a common enterprise and they will gain greater trust in nonprofits when these groups help them achieve what they hold to be valuable.

5. Trust is rooted in the common good. So many nonprofits are told they can strengthen trust if they adopt a customer service mindset. No doubt, there are times and places for this - such as how office phones are answered or how quickly requests for materials are met. But to truly build a deeper sense of trust, people want to know that a nonprofit is serving the community ­- or put another way, that it is serving the common good. People want to know that it is possible for us to solve problems together and nonprofits must demonstrate that this is their focus.

Our actions, over time, are the ingredients for trust. And trust is the glue that enables communities to work. So what actions will we take? And will we be turned inward, or outward toward our community? That is a choice we get to make.

Trust is a fragile commodity. It dissipates much faster than it is formed, and it takes time and concerted effort to create. There are no easy answers, but we can start down the path of rebuilding trust today. We can, and we must.