Nonprofits and the Trust Problem: New Signs of Worry for the Field
Nonprofits remain trusted by a majority of Americans — but that trust is eroding, according to a new study.
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In a worrying sign for the sector, Americans’ trust in nonprofits dropped compared with the previous year, according to a survey released Tuesday.
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Trust in nonprofits declined 4 percentage points, according to the survey, which was conducted by Edelman Data & Intelligence and Independent Sector, a membership organization of nonprofits and grant makers. It’s the steepest decline for nonprofits recorded in the four years the groups have taken the survey.
It wasn’t all bad news: A majority of Americans, 52 percent, said they still place a high degree of trust in nonprofits, making them the second most trusted institution behind small businesses. But among the institutions mentioned in the survey, nonprofits saw the biggest decline in trust, with its 4 percentage-point drop outpacing declines in trust toward the federal government (minus 3 percent), the news media (minus 2 percent), and big business and corporations (minus 1 percent). The survey, which polled 3,000 people, had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Elsewhere in the survey, about one-third of Americans reported that they had “high trust” in philanthropy. But the 26 percent that said they had “low trust” in philanthropy represented a 5 percentage-point increase. Gains in the number of Americans who distrust high-net-worth individuals over the past few years were especially striking, as was a dip in trust in private foundations.
The survey also found:
- Less than half of Americans have a high degree of trust in environmental and civil-rights groups and civic organizations. Organizations earning a relatively high level of trust include human services, animal welfare, and health nonprofits.
- There were wide disparities in the degree of trust Democrats and Republicans had in different types of nonprofits. Democrats had a high level of trust in civil-rights and environmental groups (64 percent and 62 percent, respectively). Republican voters placed a higher level of trust in places of worship (62 percent) than Democrats (51 percent).
- Eight in 10 respondents said they would continue to support only nonprofits that clearly demonstrate their impact.
- More than two-thirds of Americans who said their personal finances were improving had a high level of trust in nonprofits, dwarfing the 39 percent of people whose personal financial situation was on the decline who said they trusted nonprofits.
For nonprofits, the declines in trust are especially troublesome. Over the past several years, the ranks of everyday donors have dwindled, prompting some to warn of a national “generosity crisis.”
One factor that may help: boots on the ground. The survey showed that nearly 70 percent of people are more likely to trust an organization with a presence in their local community.
Nonprofits do remain one of the more trusted institutions in American life — but the decline in this year’s survey argues against complacency. The challenge for the sector is to preserve its relatively robust level of public trust amid the broader decline in trust in institutions.