52 Tips in 52 Weeks: Public Trust in the Charitable Sector

July 13, 2020

If you follow this blog, you may have read my post from a few weeks ago about the rising levels of public trust in America’s nonprofit sector.  I cited a recent study conducted by Luth Research, and the Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences which showed that public trust levels in the nonprofit sector are on the upswing in the midst of the pandemic. The report also showed that the public’s trust in nonprofits is much stronger than trust and confidence in government entities (both at the federal and the state and local levels).  This is positive news for the nonprofit sector, but we can’t rest on these numbers for too long.

In fact,  another nonprofit public confidence study was just released recently by Independent Sector called Trust in Civil Society.  Independent Sector worked with Edelman Intelligence to conduct two national surveys each of 3,000 American adults with the goal to “assess general population trust in the sector (philanthropy and nonprofits) and uncover the factors that drive trust in the sector.”  Independent Sector’s latest research showed strong overall confidence numbers in the nonprofit sector with 81 % of respondents stating their confidence in nonprofits to help strengthen society.   However, when looking at the demographics of Americans with the most and least confidence in the sector, the Independent Sector report illuminates a different picture — with the highest trust exhibited by “suburbanites and those with high socio-economic status” and those with least confidence exhibited by individuals in what Independent Sector calls “underserved communities” as defined by a variety of factors, including but not limited to household incomes of less than $35,000 and households with less education.

We know that individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds participate in and receive benefits from nonprofit organizations every day.  So, what can we do to strengthen public trust among the underserved communities?  What are some strategies that nonprofits can employ in order to earn the public’s trust from all in our community, including those who participate in our programs and those who donate income to our efforts?

The Standards for Excellence Institute has always had an important focus and emphasis on respectful and ethical treatment of those who participate in nonprofit programs and are served by nonprofit organizations. The Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector states, “ In rendering its programs or services, a nonprofit should act with the utmost professionalism and treat persons served with respect.”  The Standards for Excellence code also encourages nonprofits to “have a meaningful opportunity for the public to communicate with a representative of the organization.”  In addition, the Standards for Excellence code has a set of benchmarks centered on addressing problems and states that “nonprofits should provide an effective procedure for problem solving or reporting grievances, including but not limited to, legal or ethical misconduct by the organization’s employees and volunteers.  The procedure should include actions for addressing and resolving complaints effectively.”  As we work to serve those in need, let us all ensure that we earn the trust of those we serve through our words and deeds.

If you’d like more resources, our Standards for Excellence educational resource packet Working Professionally and Respectfully with Program Stakeholders This packet includes discussions and resources on respect, confidentiality policies, and grievance procedures with samples to help in this important area of nonprofit management and operations.

The full series of Standards for Excellence educational packets  include sample policies, tools and model procedures to help nonprofits achieve best practices in their governance and management. They can be accessed by contacting a licensed Standards for Excellence replication partner, one of the over 150 Standards for Excellence Licensed Consultants, or by becoming a member of the Standards for Excellence Institute.

We share our sincere wishes for your continued good health and patience as we all navigate these challenging and uncertain times.

Amy Coates Madsen is the Director Programs for Maryland Nonprofits and the Director of the Standards for Excellence Institute, a national initiative to promote the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to facilitate adherence to standards by all organizations. The Standards for Excellence Institute is a program of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations where Amy has served for more than twenty-four years. Amy is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the association’s comprehensive ethics and accountability program and efforts to replicate the program nationally. She serves as a frequent trainer and writer in the areas of board conduct, program evaluation, program replication, fundraising ethics, and nonprofit management. She has taught courses on nonprofit ethics and accountability at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies Certificate Program on Nonprofit Management.