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Understanding trust in the charitable sector - part 2: building trust

Understanding trust in the charitable sector - part 2: building trust

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In Understanding trust in the charitable Sector: part 1- an exploration, I explored what the literature tells us about the concept of trust and highlighted why it’s important for the charitable sector.

To further understand trust, here are a few insights into how trust breaks down and how we can build or rebuild it. This is the second post in a two-part series, you can read part one here.

How does trust break down?

While a straight answer for how trust breaks down would be useful, the literature mirrors a messy reality. Trust is a rich concept that is dependent on context and individual attitudes. There are a wide breadth of factors that influence it. Therefore it is impossible to point with certainty to a single cause or even multiple causes that destroy trust. That being said, here are a few ways trust can break down in the charitable sector.

  • Scandals. It’s not a new idea that scandals (i.e. fraud, sexual harassment) within the charitable sector can paint the sector in a bad light in the eyes of the public. Talking About Charities (2013) found that those who were familiar with charities and their activities were more likely to be trusting of the charitable sector as a whole. It could be then, that those who are least familiar with charities may be more likely to be affected by negative events or press, possibly creating stereotypes.
  • Negative Encounters. Just as positive experiences with charities builds trust, negative interactions with charities and individuals who represent them can cause trust to break down (File et al., 1994). Negative encounters are those after which the person interacting with a charity feels dissatisfied, such as over-solicitation for donations. It’s important to acknowledge that negative encounters may affect individuals with a low disposition to trust more than those with a high disposition to trust (Freitag & Traunmüller, 2009).
  • Lack of transparency. In the digital age, where information is seconds away, the public expects charities to report on their finances and performance (Gaskin, 1999). If charities fail to provide this information, it can be perceived as suspicious and untrustworthy. It is also notable that providing information in an inaccessible way, such as in convoluted forms or using sector-insider language or jargon, is not perceived as transparency by the public (Bekkers, 2003).
  • Ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Organizations that don’t succeed in their mission areas or are seen as inefficient in their practices may cause donors to lose trust. They may fear that their donation will be used ineffectively by the organization (Herzlinger, 1996). An organization that does not appear to have the ability, knowledge, and drive to achieve its mission is seen as untrustworthy. There are fewer reasons for donors to trust that the organization will do what it says it will do (Sargeant & Lee, 2002).

How can we build trust?

So far, we’ve established that trust is important for the nonprofit sector to sustain itself and thrive. Now the question is, what can charities do to improve their trustworthiness to the public?

Since there are many factors that influence trust which affect individuals differently, it is challenging to pinpoint concrete ways to increase trust across the board. However, researchers do agree that building trust is a far more laborious process than breaking it down.

In her TedTalk, Onara O’Neill reframes the conversation on building trust. O’Neill suggests that to build public trust, we must first look in the mirror at our own practices. Research identifies four components on which trustworthiness of an organization rests in the eyes of the public (Alhidari et al., 2018).

  1. Perceived Ability: Does the charity have the resources, capacity, and the know-how to achieve its mission?
  2. Perceived Integrity: Does the charity act morally and abide by a set of acceptable values? Do the actions of the charity align with the promises and mission of the charity?
  3. Perceived Benevolence: Are the motivations of the charity altruistic and without selfish intent?
  4. Disposition to Trust: Does the individual in question have a tendency to trust others and/or organizations?

Out of these four, perceived ability, integrity and benevolence of the charity are the most important to consider. The disposition to trust is extremely difficult to assess and change, while the perception of a charity can be improved. Another key insight is that, while an organization may have the ability, integrity and benevolence, it is not guaranteed that donors will perceive the charity this way. As a result, proactive action to engage in clear and effective communication of impact and organizational values may be a productive direction to head in. Research also shows that accreditation by an external organization can serve as an indicator of trustworthiness in the eyes of the public (Becker, 2018). One way you can start to take proactive action to assess your organization’s trustworthiness is to explore Imagine Canada’s Standards Program.

I hope these initial insights helped to inform you and got you thinking about what your organization and we as a sector can do to strengthen a trusting relationship with the public. Imagine Canada is continuing this work on the Trust Project to deliver more insights to you in the year ahead.


Alhidari, I. S., Veludo-de-Oliveira, T. M., Yousafzai, S. Y., & Yani-de-Soriano, M. (2018). Modeling the Effect of Multidimensional Trust on Individual Monetary Donations to Charitable Organizations. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 47(3), 623-644.

Becker, A. (2018). An Experimental Study of Voluntary Nonprofit Accountability and Effects on Public Trust, Reputation, Perceived Quality, and Donation Behavior. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 47(3), 562-582.

Bekkers, R. (2003). Trust, Accreditation, and Philanthropy in the Netherlands. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 32(4), 596-615.

File, K. M., Prince, R. A., & Cermak, D. S.(1994). Creating trust with major donors: The service encounter model. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 4(3), 269-283.

Freitag, M., & Traunmüller, R. (2009). Spheres of trust: An empirical analysis of the foundations of particularised and generalised trust. European Journal of Political Research, 48(6), 782-803.

Gaskin, K. (1999). Blurred vision: Public trust in charities. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 4(2), 163-178.

Herzlinger, R. E.(1996). Can Public Trust in Nonprofits and Governments Be Restored? Harvard Business Review, 74(2), 97-107.

Sargeant, A., & Lee, S. (2002). Individual and contextual antecedents of donor trust in the voluntary sector. Journal of Marketing Management, 18(7-8), 779-802.

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