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October 27, 2020
People Trust Nonprofits, But Feel They Must Demonstrate Impact

July 6, 2020 — While a majority of Americans have confidence in the nonprofit sector to strengthen society, less than half believe the sector is actually headed in the right direction, and to build trust and credibility, nonprofits and philanthropy must demonstrate impact and show integrity through transparency and independence, a newly published report concludes.

The report, Trust in Civil Society, based on based on a survey of 3,000 American adults, recently released by Independent Sector, a national organization of nonprofits, foundations, and corporations, found that:

  • 59% of the public reported high trust in nonprofits to do what is right, but that trust is concentrated among urbanites with high incomes and levels of education.

  • 81% of respondents said they were confident in the ability of the sector to strengthen American society, but only 47% believed the sector is headed in the right direction in their effort to do that work; 18% felt the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are headed on the wrong track.

  • Although 68% of respondents expressed confidence in philanthropy to help strengthen society, only 36% expressed high trust in philanthropy.

  • 73% of respondents reported that familiarity is a key driver in building trust in a given nonprofit.

No American institution—government, business, nonprofit—was seen as best positioned to address societal challenges today: Only 12% of respondents felt nonprofits are best positioned to do that, while 20% felt government is best able to address those challenges.

Among the reasons that 12% of respondents expressed low trust in nonprofits were lack of financial transparency, potential associations with scandals and criminal behavior, perceptions of those organizations as greedy or potentially pocketing money, or bad personal experiences.

Rural Americans and those with lower incomes and educational attainment are more likely to express skepticism about nonprofits, according to Independent Sector.

"However, the most concerning finding is respondents from underserved communities most in need of support report the lowest levels of trust in nonprofits. Despite the chasm among groups generally, when asked to report on change in trust over the last ten years, people of color and younger generations report an increased level of trust," the report noted.

The survey findings also showed that voter registration and following political issues are significant factors predicting trust in nonprofits, as well as giving and volunteering.

"To build trust and credibility, and secure the future viability of the sector, nonprofits and philanthropy must be clear about their mission and purpose, demonstrate impact, and show integrity through transparency and independence," the report concluded.

Additional key drivers nonprofits can deploy to build trust include, according to the report, a relevant mission, local presence, accountability to donors, personally familiarity, and accountability to the communities an organization serves.

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