For the first time in history, the U.S. intelligence community has named declining social trust as a major risk to global stability and security.
This confirms what community leaders around the world have known intuitively: that trust is like grease in the societal machine, making it easier for communities to cooperate. And its absence slows progress.
This revelation provides an opportunity for strategic philanthropists who can magnify their impact by building trust and helping communities organize and cooperate with less friction and contribute to the public good. Focusing more intentionally on trust building will amplify the impact they are already having and will contribute to an ecosystem that supports civic leaders, reformers, and social innovators as they serve their communities and fight back against the inequities, injustices, and identity politics that tear at the social fabric.
Thankfully, we already know many of the important components of building trust, and organizations are already incorporating them into their work with encouraging results. Philanthropists and social innovators should use these lessons to help reverse social and public distrust and its consequences.
Establishing trustworthiness between groups, and in institutions, takes time. Once established, however, the benefits are enormous – people can work together with less friction, tolerate different views, and generally give others the benefit of the doubt. Building trust early is critical to maximizing impact.
A powerful example is Rural Education and Development (READ) Global, which partners with rural villages in Nepal, India, and Bhutan to establish community library and resource centers (READ Centers), which are owned and operated by the local community. Each center connects with local partners to offer education and training in literacy, job skills, and women’s empowerment. A case study on the READ model highlighted its unique program design, which prioritizes establishing trust within the local community, often for more than a year, before focusing on other program outcomes. The READ team engages repeatedly with local community members and completes a comprehensive needs assessment before breaking ground on the centers. Interviews with community members show that they see the READ Centers as a tangible, long-term reminder of what they can accomplish as a community when they work together toward a common goal.
Trust-building practices should be intentionally designed into programs from the start and should engage local partners who best know the community and its needs.
Fundación Guatemala’s Agenda of Young Women for Safe Mobility as a Right to Cities program set out to build trust between local women and local authorities while implementing local safety reforms. Fundación Guatemala (in partnership with the USAID-funded Youth Excel program) set up community-wide walks during which marginalized young women and local authorities traverse the routes that women commonly take to work, while listening to their concerns. Fundación Guatemala then collaborates with local youth to create maps for authorities to address women’s safety concerns. The process of engaging with marginalized women to share their experiences in a safe and supported manner helped build trust. Women in the community were not only listened to – they could see they were being heard.
One of the surest pathways to trust is to ensure that programs are delivering on their promises, through real services and benefits to communities.This sort of day in, day out performance rarely earns the spotlight, but is what ultimately matters most when philanthropists are considering how to build trust.
The USAID Comunitatea Mea program, for example, supports local governments in Moldova to be more effective, transparent, and accountable to citizens through the improved provision of services. The program aims to build trust in local government by affirming that the decisions made by local governments reflect citizens’ priorities. In the communities of Sarata Veche and Carpineni for example, the program supported local government to enact new policies on the selection, evaluation, and implementation of citizen-driven ideas for local development. In Carpineni, this process resulted in both the municipality and local residents committing resources to complete road repairs – building trust and much-needed infrastructure within the local community.
Leaders who serve their communities capably and ethically are a critical driver of positive social change. Philanthropists need to invest in developing dynamic leaders – especially at a local level – who can be networked to work together to achieve greater impact.
One program that focuses on supportinglocal leaders is Weave: the Social Fabric Project, an Aspen Institute program based in the U.S. Weave connects local “weavers” – community leaders spearheading local initiatives – and offers them hyperlocal grants to help them amplify their existing efforts. More importantly, everyone who applies – whether approved for funding or not – is invited into a local Weave Community that meets in-person and virtually for skill-building workshops, community discussions, peer support, and mutual aid. Trust building is a skill that can be learned.
When access to opportunities or public services is blocked due to bias, people lose faith in the leaders and institutions they feel are marginalizing them. To rebuild trust, philanthropists should support bridge building between groups and actively extend opportunities to the marginalized.
This was the goal behind Search for Common Ground’s Erasmus+ Virtual Exchange program, which engaged over 33,000 young people across Europe and the northern Mediterranean through online training and facilitated dialogue designed to equip them with the skills to collaborate across dividing lines. Participants reacted favorably, with 71% saying they had built positive, meaningful relationships with peers from different countries and 76% saying that the virtual exchange helped them improve teamwork and collaborative problem-solving.
Studies have shown that under the right conditions, engagement between groups helps promote trust and mutual understanding. One such condition is that the groups work toward a common goal.
For example, Mercy Corps implemented a USAID-funded program called PEACE in Western Niger, which used MercyCorps’ CATALYSE community mobilization toolkit to bring together community members with local leaders and government officials to collaboratively design, implement, and monitor community projects that were intended to build social cohesion. An evaluation of the PEACE program found that participation in the program strengthened trust within groups, especially after collaborative activities like infrastructure projects and cultural or sporting events. Mercy Corps also found that the program led to trust improvements between citizens and governing actors. Communities that participated in more PEACE activities were more likely to believe that “leaders keep their commitments to the community.” Here too, infrastructure projects appeared to have the strongest impact on state-society relations.
Another good example is the PASO Colombia program, implemented by One Earth Future. The PASO program brought together rural Colombian farmers, FARC ex-combatants, and Venezuelan migrants to collaborate on economic development in their communities. Evaluation surveys showed that trust increased, not only among people within the communities, but also between the communities and local and national institutions.
Philanthropists, nongovernmental organizations, and social investors have a critical role to play in rebuilding global trust through the work they support and the programs they implement. By integrating these lessons into existing programming – and using them to design new programs - those working in the nonprofit sector can help reverse the vicious cycle of distrust that threatens to further splinter societies and set back economic and social progress. Positive change is possible, but we need action now to put these solutions into practice.