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On trust: There is such a thing as healthy skepticism

A group of Spitfires, led by our founder, Kristen Grimm, is exploring the concept of trust. When we began this project, I understood the North Star to be: “How might we increase trust?” Declining trust is a well-documented serious issue. 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.” As someone who cares about climate change and reproductive justice, I don’t love that statistic or the story it tells — and it also doesn’t surprise me. But the more our team sleuthed on trust, the clearer this became to me: A lack of trust isn’t really the issue. It’s a lack of trustworthiness that’s brought about the AP results above, and accountability — acting with integrity — is the best path forward. 

This video by climate activist Saad Amer stopped me in my tracks. 

Why would young people trust civil society organizations when, for the most part, they’re not seeing anything being done to change the material conditions of their world? 

Why would Black women trust hospital systems that refuse to listen to them? 

Mistrust is a protective factor when people are forced to interact with organizations and institutions that are exploiting and harming them. When people regularly experience a lack of accountability from the systems that are supposed to serve them, it’s logical that they’re not going to trust. So many schools, hospitals, cities and nonprofits are not following through on their promises. And too few institutions are consistently and actively working to build and rebuild trust. Part of that is understanding and acknowledging their own role in mistrust. 

Accountability and trust go hand in hand. Rather than doing more measuring of why trust is declining now, organizations and institutions need to assess how they’re keeping their promises and get serious about the lasting and far-reaching implications of a lack of accountability when they’re not achieving what they claim to. Communicating from a place of transparency and humility will help. We need to acknowledge the roots of the issues we face to help audiences peek behind the curtain on why some battles are uphill and help join in rather than lose steam. The BROKE Project does a great job of guiding organizations that communicate about poverty on how to do that without creating more harm by focusing on systems and structures that create and benefit from poverty instead of assigning more blame on individuals and furthering stigma. 

Organizations can establish accountability by first understanding their goals, their values and how their actions align with those goals and values. In the article “Social Service or Social Change,” Paul Kivel, a leader in violence prevention work, offers an incredibly helpful framework for understanding the difference between working to mitigate the effects of an issue and actually shifting power to change that issue. In it, he unpacks how of course both are important, but the distinction lies in accountability for long-term change around an issue versus continually treating its symptoms. Understanding who you’re accountable to can also help organizations understand the long-term goals and impacts of their work. 

Actively showing AND communicating that you are a trustworthy organization is essential. Soon, Spitfire will have a guide to help organizations and institutions with concrete ways to reverse the decline in trust. But you don’t need to wait for the guide to assess how your actions align with your stated intentions. Start by working to draw those together. How this plays out in the real world is that organizations walk their talk and employees, leadership and board members understand they contribute to this with their everyday actions. Behave with integrity toward the organization’s stated intentions and trust will follow. 

This blog is part of our building social trust project which is supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s views.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 26, 2023 at 09:54 am and is filed under Brand identity and strategy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.