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September 27, 2021
Trust in Nonprofits, Philanthropy Is High, But Could be at Risk

July 22, 2021 — While a majority of Americans remain confident in the ability of the nonprofit sector to strengthen American society, institutional trust is declining and nonprofits and philanthropy are not immune to this trend, a newly published report concludes.

Independent Sector, which issued Trust in Civil Society, based on surveys of 8,000 American adults, said the data it developed “raises the question of whether underlying systemic issues may impact the public’s perception of the nonprofit sector.”

When asked, “Do you trust X to do what is right,” 47% of survey respondents in 2020 answered affirmatively with regard to nonprofits; that number dropped slightly to 45% to a recent follow-up survey.

In contrast, with regard to philanthropy, positive responses dropped substantially over the same year– from 15% to 4%.

Despite those findings, 84% of respondents said they were confident in the ability of nonprofits to strengthen American society, while 65% said the same of philanthropy.

In addition:

  • Americans with lower incomes, lower levels of education, and residents of rural areas have consistently less trust in the sector than their wealthier, more educated peers.

  • Gen Z (those born from 1997 through the early 2010s) reported a significant trust decrease, while the oldest respondents increased their trust.

  • Those who are familiar with nonprofits are more likely to trust them: 42% who interacted with nonprofit said those interactions improved their impression of nonprofits generally.

With regard to their perceptions of the preferred role of nonprofits, 45% of respondents said it was to help the less fortunate, 16% said it was make change, and 11% said it was to lead by example.

Reasons for respondents expressing low trust in nonprofits included associations with corruption and greed, not being financially transparent, and having had bad personal experiences. For philanthropy, they included “Money doesn’t go where they say it should/too much goes to overhead and salaries,” organizations are “not in it for the right reasons,” or they heard about scandals or corruption.

Top trust drivers for nonprofits and philanthropy include having a clear mission, engaging underserved communities, and benefiting Americans’ local communities, according to the report.

Independent Sector noted, “The fact that integrity ranked as a primary trust driver for individual nonprofits is consistent with the finding that the most common reasons Americans distrust nonprofits are perceived financial impropriety and self-enriching behavior.

“Determining strategic drivers for the sector may include the need to deliver a noticeable positive impact on respondents’ lives and strengthen sector-wide systems promoting transparency and accountability.

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