Where to Begin Building Trust
Trust is your organization’s most valuable asset.
Without trust, supporters won’t be confident that their relationship with your organization will be a positive one. Trust involves the willingness to be vulnerable. In the case of donors, this means to be willing to support your mission with their dollars so you will make something they think is important happen.
Often, we hear nonprofits talk about their supporters as making up the “[nonprofit name] family.” That’s a good analogy — supporters as family members — which leads to the question: How do family members establish and maintain trust?
Family therapists identify three factors crucial to maintain trust:
- Create new positive experiences together.
- Talk to one another.
- Find ways to connect.
Do you engage with supporters routinely, or just to fundraise for an event? What kind of communication is the norm; it is just one-way — you to them? Do you provide avenues for family members to connect with one another as well? How you answer these questions is an indicator of how well you’re building trust.
The importance of trust first hit us in 2019 on a trip to Russia to teach peer-to-peer fundraising to Moscow-based nonprofits.
In many ways, our experience was like taking a trip back in time. Today, there are 143,000 nonprofit organizations in Russia, compared to more than 1.5 million in the U.S. Most Russian nonprofits (about 65%) are located and operate in the country’s two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. In these two cities, 2.5% of residents make regular charitable donations.
According to a 2021 study, for the first time since 2000, fewer than half of U.S. households donated to charity, according to a study from Indiana University's Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. The study identifies declining levels of trust in institutions among Americans as one factor contributing to the decline in philanthropy.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 60% of Americans said that they have confidence in charitable and nongovernmental organizations, while 27% said they do not. However, those figures are reversed among Russians, with only 29% expressing confidence and a majority (54%) saying that they do not.
That 27% of Americans who say they don’t trust charities should be worrying to the nonprofit sector. This is at a time when Americans’ trust in institutions is on the wane. And this trend is already affecting your revenues.
Fabian Pfortmüller is the founder of the Together Institute, an organization whose mission is community building. Its work isn’t well-known to nonprofits, but it should be. Some years ago, Pfortmüller devised a simple test to measure a community’s strength:
“If a person who is a member of the same community as me, but the two of us have never met, contacts me and asks for my help, how likely am I to help her/him?”
It’s an interesting thought experiment that you might do when considering your supporters. It’s a crucial test because what it really measures is the level of trust amongst your community. As Pfortmüller said, “Trust is actionable. More trust leads to more action.”
In the case of a nonprofit community, action means feeding more hungry people, building more low-cost housing or providing more free medical services — all of it.
Your supporters don’t know exactly how you use their donations toward your nonprofit’s goals. That means trust is something that can make or break the success of your mission. So, what can you do to up the “trust factor” among your supporters?
Psychologists have extensively studied the impact of trust in many settings. Generally speaking, researchers link trust in communities to successes, such as stronger volunteerism, healthier residents and economic prosperity. Building and maintaining trust is something that requires strategy and execution. But there is one key component to any organization’s trust-building enterprise: engagement.
The average nonprofit supporter is engaged (let’s be honest) very little. Few organizations make it possible for supporters to communicate with one another — a huge miss. For example, last year, the American Cancer Society set up a Facebook group page for each of its 96 national events. There was an average of 22 posts or responses to other group member posts by people in each group. That’s a lot of engagement!
The reason that engagement builds trust is related to a person’s identity. How people view their identity makes them more likely to do certain things. One thing is to engage with other members of their community. Every time they engage, it strengthens their identity, making them more likely to re-engage and so forth. So, the wheel goes round and round.
Sure, increasing engagement to boost trust is an oversimplification; not all engagement is created equal. But it’s the place to start. Plus, engagement leads to relationship building, which has all kinds of benefits in addition to trust.
Is it worth the time and resources? Think about Pfortmüller’s thought experiment before you answer.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.