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No Quick Fix for Broken Trust

The level of trust for a nonprofit can be measured by the loyalty, generosity, engagement, and growth in its donors, clients and community support. When those factors are growing or shrinking you know which way trust is trending.

Building trust is a slow process. First there must be honesty. There is a temptation to tell outsiders everything is fine when the roof is falling in. The theory is that if the outsiders knew the truth they would withhold support. The opposite is true. They will respond positively to bad news if they are told how they can help and if they believe that it is possible to turn the situation around.

Transparency is the foundation for honesty. When all of the facts are known, it is obvious that honesty abounds. Transparency is more than just sharing the facts. The facts must be understandable without explanation. Explanation is spin. In addition, the facts must be shared on a regular basis so that when the facts are most important, it is obvious they are genuine rather than something that was manufactured to fit the need or win support.

The three enemies of truth are exaggerations, excuses, and misrepresentations. Politicians are a tragic example. Gallup polls consistently tell us that very few Americans trust politicians. There is very little evidence that many of them are dishonest but exaggerations, excuses, and misrepresentations abound. Their missteps may be the results of overly optimistic projections or inexperience but they destroy confidence just as quickly as willfully misleading the public would.

Unfortunately, nonprofits also often over promise and mislead their supporters. Even if their donors, clients, and community are willing to accept that it was optimism that catalyzed the problem, the damage is done. Though it was an honest mistake, sustainability declines. The perceptions of mission effectiveness is unmined by doubts about the trustworthiness of the information received.

Next Step:

Ensure your reports are transparent and easily understood by the recipients

Be conservative when setting goals so that your results never disappoint

Ensure that everything is self explanatory

Report mistakes and other disappointments immediately

It is better to report a mistake or disappointment before all the facts are known than to have someone else discover it. You can always provide updates as more information becomes available. In our current environment, when an organization is slow reporting bad news, it is assumed they hoped to keep it hidden.

Trust is based more on perception than facts. Facts lay the foundation for trust but the perception of the situation will often override the facts. Continuing support and your nonprofit’s sustainability depend on your stakeholders’ and community’s perception of your nonprofit.

Grow the trust of your supporters by communicating clearly, openly, and frankly.

Take It Further:

Ensure all your board members have sterling personal reputations

Ask your board to create a zero-tolerance policy

Ensure that all discussions (public and private) regardless of the group (staff, board, committee, or informal) are fit for public review (security is never going to be airtight)

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