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Replenishing trust: Civil society’s guide to reversing the trust deficit™

Why trust is important

Trust for institutions across society is declining. This growing trust deficit is a serious problem: It erodes a high-functioning pluralistic democracy, compromises public health and makes it impossible to solve collective problems like climate change. Trust doesn’t just happen. American civil society institutions have an important role to play in increasing trust — which is necessary to create the kind of world we all want to live in. With funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the foundation's), Spitfire conducted a review of social science and interviewed researchers and organizational leaders. The result is “Replenishing Trust: Civil Society’s Guide to Reversing the Trust Deficit™,” with promising practices for civil society leaders to try to increase trust.

What leaders can do to replenish trust

Trust-building is actions aligned to values — it’s not just communicating about what matters, but doing it.


How would your work be different and more effective if you enjoyed greater trust among the people you work with, partner with and serve?

For leaders of civil society organizations, earning, rebuilding and maintaining trust is a complicated but essential undertaking. First you need to decide what “strong trust” means for your organization and how it helps you achieve your mission. Then you need to understand the context in which you’re building trust across diverse groups of people, from your staff to your partners to the people you serve to society at large. Bad actors in society who deliberately undermine trust make your job harder.

For civil society leaders to reverse the growing trust deficit and use social trust to bridge rather than divide society, leaders need to know the most effective ways to earn trust. It takes continuous effort, rigorous accountability and an understanding that earning trust — building relationships, communicating and acting in the best interests of those you seek to serve — is a dynamic force that’s well worth nurturing.

Ask: What is the spirit of trust you want your organization to embody, and who needs to trust you?

Understand what social trust is: Social trust is a broad belief in the honesty, integrity and reliability of others — a justified faith in people. Importantly, trust is ultimately a leap of faith. That means it isn’t entirely rational or logical.
Now define what “strong trust” means for your organization and how it helps you achieve the mission. Make sure all who work for your organization from staff to board know what this is and their role in contributing to it.
Get clear about the different groups of people you want to build trusting relationships with Leaders likely want staff and their board, partners and the communities throughout society with whom they work to trust them individually and trust their organization.
What is the spirit of trust you want?


What spirit of trust do you have, and what spirit of trust do you want to cultivate and among which sets of people?

Assess: Where are you when it comes to being trusted?

Get a sense from both internal and external communities about how trustworthy they find your organization and what fractures need repair to increase trust. Keep in mind that social trust is fluid, based on history and current context. This isn’t a one-and-done exercise. Leaders need to take the pulse on trust on a regular basis. Start with what you have going for you. Look for signs of high trust that you can build on.

From social science research, we discovered 11 signs of high trust.

  1. Your organization has clear, shared moral norms, communicated with and demonstrated to the people with whom you want trusting relationships. These are rules or expectations driven by values. Your teams know them and contribute to upholding them.
  2. The communities you serve are embedded in your organization — or better yet, they lead the work. This means giving them substantial control over decision-making, not just more responsibility.
  3. People are not hunkered down in survival mode. They are stepping out of their bubbles and those engaging with you do so with responsiveness and vulnerability.
  4. People engaging with your organization feel welcome, have agency and participate in ways meaningful to them.
  5. There is a spirit of optimism within and around your organization. Optimism is future-oriented and there is a belief that things will turn out for the best.
  6. There is a strong sense internally and externally that your organization places public interest over self-interest.
  7. There is a growing in-group, i.e., more and more people who embrace and exhibit the same moral norms and trust that others will as well.
  8. Your organization is conflict-resilient. It holds difficult discussions, acknowledges breaches of trust and takes steps to repair them.
  9. Communities and partners seek out your organization, and there is measurable positive word of mouth about your organization and team.
  10. There is visible accountability, including your organization listening and leading with empathy, taking feedback and acting on it.
  11. Your organization treats growing social trust as a valuable goal in itself.


What fractures of mistrust might your organization be facing that you need to address?

You may experience trust fractures you need to address.

Leaders also need to understand where they experience lack of trust, mistrust and distrust. All of these make it hard to do work.

  1. Lack of trust occurs because people don’t know a lot about an organization or an issue. It isn’t a negative judgment but rather a human trait to anticipate.
  2. Mistrust reflects doubt. People are skeptical and have a lot of questions. It may be a generalized mistrust not aimed at a certain institution. Whole categories of organizations or fields may experience this mistrust. People feeling mistrust are generally open to new information, while those who distrust are often resistant to new information.
  3. Distrust is more damning. It is a settled belief that an organization or category of organizations, like science organizations, is not trustworthy. Social distrust is problematic because it creates negative feelings — hard ones, such as resentment, indifference, disappointment and anger. This takes its toll on society and makes it much more difficult for organizations to achieve their objectives.

Implement: 10 concrete ways to earn trust

From all the research and experts’ insights that Spitfire gathered, the guide identifies 10 recommendations broken into three categories.

Walk your talk.

  • Behave with integrity toward your organization’s stated intentions. Never lose sight of this.
  • Prioritize knowing, following and modeling moral norms. You need to know the rules to follow them.
  • Practice moral elevation, which is a fancy way of saying show these norms happening in the real world.

Put your best foot forward.

  • Prioritize the trust trio: practice equality, prove competency and instill hope. Research suggests these actions do more to build strong trust than other behaviors.
  • Signal and show that your organization trusts its communities.
  • Encourage participation so people feel included and heard. Participation includes both learning and tapping expertise and insights.
  • Extend the in-group. It’s important to do this ethically.

Don’t step in it.

  • Own up to mistakes and misalignment of organizational values and actions. If your organization is spinning, washing or any synonyms of that … stop. Your organization can’t talk its way out of misalignment — it can only act its way out.
  • Don’t underestimate expertise or engage in drive-by relationships. These transactional interactions hinder rather than ladder up to trust.
  • Engage in deep in-group bonding without othering. Ultimately, vilifying others in the name of bonding contributes to long-term trust problems.
Decide steps to take to earn trust

Rebuild: Mend broken trust

Research says when trust breaks, organizations must commit to moral repair. Those who believe they have been wronged cannot rationally choose to forget broken trust.

Organizations must analyze breaks in trust and determine steps to restore relationships, including acknowledging wrongdoing, holding those who broke trust accountable and reinforcing shared moral norms. Repairing broken relationships means addressing all elements of the fracture, including feelings and rational judgments. Collective memory is a locus of broken trust, but within collective memories also lies radical hope and the potential for transcending those conditions.

Step 1: Understand what the fracture is.

Step 2: Repair the fracture.

Step 3: Take the pulse regularly to see whether the work is paying off with more trusted relationships and what more you may need to do.

Step 4: Over time, assess whether the moral repair worked.

Rebuild your trust

Ask and act: Keep trust top of mind

As people often say, we measure what matters, and if trust matters, you need to measure it. Find ways to systematically listen to those you can build trust with. Constantly review your communications and ensure you are asking the explicit question: “Are we keeping our promises and staying aligned with our stated values and moral norms?”

Ask and act

Trust-building time

There is no better time to engage in trust-building than right now. Ask yourself and your team: Is what we are doing today, this week, this year increasing trust or eroding it?

You have a unique position in society and can use your power to make trust a strength for your organization and in our society rather than a weakness. Committing to concrete behaviors and practices that earn trust and being accountable for the results will help reverse the trust deficit and elevate social trust. Imagine what’s possible in that world.

Download the full Trust Guide

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