Trust in Nonprofits and Philanthropy Continues to Be Higher Than in Government and the News Media

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Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy

By Alex Daniels

Americans’ trust in nonprofits and philanthropy remains higher than in many other institutions, including federal and state government, corporations, and the news media, but that confidence has slipped in the years since Covid became a global calamity, according to a new report.

Since 2020, trust in nonprofits has declined from 59 percent to 56 percent, according to a February online survey of 3,015 people conducted by Independent Sector and Edelman Data & Intelligence. Trust in philanthropy, including private and corporate foundations and wealthy donors, dropped 2 percentage points — a decline deemed statistically insignificant — during the same period.

Without trust, nonprofits lack a key “currency” that allows them to operate smoothly, said Jeffrey Moore, chief strategy officer at Independent Sector. High levels of trust allow nonprofits to raise more money, successfully combine efforts with government agencies, and build strong working relationships with people in towns and cities where they serve.

The slight decline in trust in nonprofits mirrors declines over recent years in institutions across the board, Moore said. But he cautioned that nonprofit leaders should not dismiss the changing attitudes reflected in the survey.

The decline in trust is not “a four-alarm fire” for nonprofits, Moore said. “But any time that we see trust on a downward slope, we have cause to be asking ourselves really hard questions.”

Women and members of Generation Z, the oldest of whom are in their late 20s, both said they had lower levels of trust, on average, than other people polled, with only half of Gen Z respondents and 52 percent of women saying they had a high level of trust in nonprofits compared with the 56 percent of all survey respondents who said the same.

The survey also found:

  • 64 percent of people who characterized their financial well-being as excellent or good said they had a high level of trust in nonprofits, compared with 47 percent who said they were in fair or poor financial shape.
  • Philanthropy had higher levels of trust among people with college degrees (48 percent), people with annual incomes greater than $75,000 (45 percent), and registered Democrats (44 percent).
  • People who were familiar with the work of nonprofits and philanthropies were more likely to trust them. Two-thirds of people familiar with nonprofits held a high trust level, and more than half of those familiar with philanthropy trusted philanthropic institutions and donors.

Familiarity Breeds Trust

The survey found a few differences in trust levels held by people of different races. For example 42 percent of Black people surveyed had a high level of trust in philanthropy compared with 35 percent for both Asian Americans and Hispanic people and 34 percent for white people. Still, Allison Grayson, director of policy development and analysis at Independent Sector, said other factors, including age, gender, education, and income, were more statistically significant indicators of trust than race alone.

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Nonprofits should seize upon the finding that people who are familiar with their work trust them more, Grayson said. They should enlist such people to become “ambassadors” for nonprofit work writ large, she suggested. For example, nonprofits could help people tell stories about their role in society rather than simply talk about how they provide a service, like feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless.

That work, she said, is particularly essential to attract members of Gen Z, many of whom said they are more likely to give directly to a person or a cause than to an institution to promote public good. Young people’s ease and fluency in giving online may account for some of this preference, but Grayson says a big part of the reason is that members of Gen Z haven’t been approached by nonprofits in a constructive way. The large majority of Gen Zers, she said, are undecided about how much they trust nonprofits.

“There’s a lot of opportunity there to win them over,” she said. “It may be that we as a sector haven’t figured out how to engage them in a way that they like because they are a new generation and we’re still learning to understand them.”

According to the survey, the decline in trust in nonprofits and philanthropy among women reflected the disparate impact the pandemic has had on women.

The toll the pandemic has taken on women’s health and economic well-being has resulted in a skepticism about many societal institutions, said Kathleen Enright, president of the Council on Foundations.

Philanthropy can play a role in ameliorating some of the problems that are causing an erosion of trust in all institutions. Enright said.

“This report is reflective of broader societal trends that philanthropy and nonprofits don’t control,” she said. “But we can play a positive role in strengthening civic ties. We can play a positive role in reducing wealth gaps, particularly the racial wealth gap. And we can help the pandemic recovery keep pace for everyone, particularly women.”

Pandemic Played a Role

Nonprofits are still trusted more than other institutions, largely because of the role they played during the pandemic hooking up internet connections so people could work remotely, helping people get access to vaccines and Covid testing, and providing food and health care, said Angela Williams, president of United Way Worldwide.

To ensure that trust does not diminish, United Way will pay special attention to the needs of women and will try to connect with young people, she said. The national nonprofit’s Women’s United Global Leadership Council, a group of United Way volunteers, plans to release a report this summer on how the organization can better advocate for women’s health, education, and employment.

Gen Z is “highly fertile ground for innovation and fresh perspectives” because it is more diverse than previous generations, Williams said. A priority for the United Way is to make it easier for young people to donate and to provide young movement leaders with a more visible platform for the causes they promote.

She says United Way is discussing how it can better connect with Gen Z, but “it starts, honestly, with giving them a voice.”

Endorsements and Clear Mission

One of the key findings in the study was the role that endorsements from celebrities and public figures play in elevating trust in both nonprofits and grant makers. Those topped the list of what advanced trust, followed by a clear mission for charities and government partnerships for philanthropists. People with low levels of trust said high expenses or “overhead,” and “inappropriate political agendas” weakened their confidence in nonprofits.

Lower levels of trust for nonprofits because of politics isn’t surprising, says Michael Hartmann, senior fellow at the Capital Research Center, a conservative research group, because much of mainstream philanthropy’s agenda is set by big, progressive foundations.

“The politicization of philanthropy properly comes with the cost,” he said.

Independent Sector’s Grayson noted that both Democrats and Republicans held higher levels of trust in nonprofits and philanthropy than independent voters or people who did not vote in the 2020 elections. The challenge, she said, is for nonprofits to connect with people who may feel disconnected from all aspects of civil society.

A lot of those people, Grayson said, are ” just sort of checking out and saying, ‘I can’t rely on any institution to really advance my interest in the way that they claim.'”

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