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Why the idea of a trust crisis in NFPs is ‘not grounded in reality’


19 October 2020 at 6:36 pm
Luke Michael
New analysis shows there has been a small increase in global trust for charities


Luke Michael | 19 October 2020 at 6:36 pm


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Why the idea of a trust crisis in NFPs is ‘not grounded in reality’
19 October 2020 at 6:36 pm

New analysis shows there has been a small increase in global trust for charities

While charities often worry about an erosion of trust among the public, new Australian research shows there is no evidence for a global trust crisis in the not-for-profit sector.

Researchers recently assessed the extent to which public trust has changed over time, examining trust in NGOs across 31 countries from 2011 to 2019 using data from the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Their analysis revealed that after allowing for differences in absolute levels of trust and trends across countries, there was actually a small increase in global trust in the not-for-profit sector. 

While charities such as World Vision, White Ribbon and Oxfam have endured high-profile scandals in recent years, the report said scandals within individual organisations have not impacted overall sectoral trust.

One of the authors of the report, Dr Cassandra Chapman, told Pro Bono News she became interested in the issue when she started to notice headlines claiming a crisis of confidence in charities – both in Australia and around the world. 

She said she attended the Fundraising Institute Australia (FIA) conference in 2018 and was “struck by how many fundraisers were talking about a crisis of trust”. 

“As a non-profit scholar, I did some digging. The reports that made headlines were usually year-to-year comparisons and didn’t use statistical tests; and I couldn’t find any scholarly work on the question from a global perspective,” Chapman said.

“My collaborator Matthew Hornsey thought it would be fun to test whether the crisis was an ‘empirical fact’.

“[Another] collaborator, Nicole Gillespie, [then] had the brilliant idea of contacting Edelman to see if we could analyse their unaggregated trust barometer data, which even they hadn’t done before.” 

Analysing data from almost 300,000 people, researchers found there were small year-on-year fluctuations in people’s trust in NGOs globally but no discernible trend.

The results showed a small increase of trust in NGOs around the globe, with this increase more pronounced among men (vs women), and especially among people under 40, and those with higher levels of education, income, and media consumption.

The report said it was easy to see how a “crisis of trust” narrative could have gained traction within the sector. 

“There have been well-documented collapses of trust in other institutions (such as government and the media) and this trend has emerged at the same time as several high-profile cases of improper behaviour by charities,” the report said. 

“However, our data suggest that this crisis narrative is not grounded in reality.” 

The report suggested that global coverage of charity scandals may not be affecting trust in the not-for-profit sector as a whole.

Researchers proposed that “the strong moral reputations of [not for profits] may function as a kind of ‘trust bank’ that buffers them from the effects of scandals”.

“Perhaps over time the sector makes deposits in the community trust bank through their good works in society,” the report said.

“When scandals emerge within individual organisations, this may draw down some of the community trust that has built up over time but have comparatively little impact on reserves of overall trust in the sector.”

In light of these findings, the report warned against charities using their “scarce resources” to “fend off non-existent risks”.

“For example, based on narratives of declining public trust, [not for profits] may feel pressured to invest more in transparently documenting their work and risk management strategies, or investing in marketing campaigns to reassure the public of their integrity and trustworthiness,” the report said. 

“Such strategies can divert scarce resources away from the organisation’s central mission.” 

Chapman said charities should continue to focus on what they do best, such as serving the community and promoting human rights. 

She said their “trust bank” hypothesis suggests there may be benefits to the whole sector if not for profits continue to do good work and publicise it.

“Not for profits should continue good governance practices and ensuring internal checks and balances are in place to protect individual charities from scandal,” she said.

“This research, however, suggests that trust damage has not yet spilled over to affect trust in the wider sector, which is a relief.” 

The research article can be seen here.


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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One comment

  • Avatar Dr Michael Cole says:

    Luke, I think there are two things which do lead to a lack of trust in NFPs in Australia. The first is that they are almost unregulated because the regulators like Fair Trading NSW, and other similar departments, do almost nothing except make sure the paperwork is registered. After that a NFP can ignore all policies and its own constitution and do anything it likes except steal money. Secondly no one cares, as a current scandal shows: https://www.nwdsscandal.com/

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