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Trust building is mission critical

The other day, I read survey results I have come to expect. According to the Associated Press: “Overall, 39% of U.S. adults said they had ‘a great deal of confidence’ in the scientific community, down from 48% in 2018 and 2021. That’s according to the General Social Survey, a long-running poll conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago that has monitored Americans’ opinions on key topics since 1972.”

The decline in trust is well documented from the Edelman Trust Barometer to Gallup tracking confidence in institutions. What isn’t as documented is what civil society organizations need to do about it. 

At Spitfire, we are launching a project to study the social sciences to determine what exactly social trust is. Why is it so important to a strong democracy and for advancing missions for civil society organizations? How can organizations cultivate trust, especially in headwinds where there are forces that have a vested interest in undermining trust? How can organizations stop engaging in behaviors that self-sabotage building trust? And, last, how can organizations rebuild trust after they have broken it with current and/or historic behavior? We hope by asking these questions, we can answer the big one: How can civil society organizations deliberately cultivate high trust among the people they work with and serve? 

Trust is essential to making progress on the common good. High levels of trust are necessary for people to let teachers do their jobs in school, get vaccines, drink water from the tap, accept election results, get on public transit, follow scientific advice to stay safe and healthy, and use playground equipment at a public park. If a community looks around and sees that neighboring communities get a pool and a library while they don’t have sidewalks, trust erodes. 

Despite trust being an important element for relations between organizations and people, there is a lack of active cultivation going on. Which civil society organizations have chief trust officers? Which organizations as an annual metric measure the level of trust they enjoy among those they partner with and serve? Some organizations know there has been a betrayal of trust with people they serve, whether from secret medical experiments on BIPOC communities to predatory lending and redlining to ignoring data on inequities. Yet, are those same institutions actively rebuilding trust or relying on the saying “time heals all wounds” to do the trick?

The U.S. has a trust problem, and it is getting worse. Some blame that on the U.S. being an individualistic nation, but — in fact — throughout history, America has been more communal minded then it is today and had greater trust for civil society institutions. In the past, people trusted their neighbors more and were willing to work together.

Growing lack of trust has consequences. If civil society is not trusted to frame up problems and offer solutions, if the media is not trusted to convey those honestly and if the government is not trusted to govern effectively, those elements destabilize a healthy democracy. They make it harder to address health inequities, protect the public interest and promote well-being. If people are to reimagine together and pose solutions to the country’s problems, more trust is necessary. To create a sense of belonging, more trust is needed. If trust is a necessary ingredient for many societal ambitions, what do civil society organizations need to do to take the lead and cultivate and strengthen trust?

Declining trust won’t fix itself. We don’t need more reports telling us trust is declining. We need more ideas about how to strengthen it and restore it. 

As we do our research, talk to experts and form insights, Spitfire will share what we are learning. Here are some early toplines:

  • Social trust is essential to make progress. According to A. M. Krafft in “Hope Across Cultures,” it is a necessary ingredient for solidarity: “We trust people whom we consider to have good intentions, support our values and would help us in case of necessity. In this sense, social trust is the first condition for solidarity, mutual cooperation and support.”
  • It’s a mistake to conflate transparency or confidence with trust. They are not interchangeable. Trust is a stand-alone must-have; to get it, organizations need to behave in ways that demonstrate they are trustworthy.
  • Trust-building is a slow process, and we can’t treat it like an instant transaction. There are few shortcuts.
  • Psychologists like Erik Erikson made the case that “hope is the phenomenon emerging from the positive resolution of the existential conflict between fear and trust.” That means for people to believe change is possible, they need to trust; otherwise, they will lose hope and give into fear. 

That’s a lot to think about, right? We look forward to sharing more as we dig in on this important topic. 

If you have ideas, studies or experts for me as Spitfire continues this exploration, send them my way. If you’d love to have a deep conversation about this virtually or in some inspiring place, I’m up for that too. 


This entry was posted on Monday, June 26, 2023 at 14:44 pm and is filed under Spitfire culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.