The Trust


Kristin M. Lord writes that trust is the basis of all effective relationships — and especially philanthropic partnerships built to last.

The Reality of Trust

Trust. It’s a humble word with an unimaginably far-reaching impact. What happens when we stop trusting?  And how can we repair social trust when it frays?

A recent study asked Americans to reflect on their trust in leaders, ranging from government officials to the military. Overall, ratings with regard to ethical behavior were low and show Americans’ confidence in crucial societal structures is eroding. But why, and what will this mean for society?

A fascinating, yet troubling downward spiral can be seen globally, not just in the United States. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, which surveyed people across 27 markets worldwide, revealed some disturbing results. Although public trust in NGOs, businesses, governments, and media showed signs of modest improvement overall, only one in five people surveyed believed the system is working for them. Trust is even lower for some groups and there is significant variation by country, gender, and (in the United States) partisan affiliation. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer expanded on these findings, showing significant gaps in trust between “informed” and “mass” publics and divisions within and across societies when it comes to evaluating various social institutions such as NGOs, business, government, and media.

The study referenced above was carried out by Pew Research Center. Researchers asked Americans to reflect on their trust in members of Congress, local elected officials, K-12 public school principals, journalists, military leaders, police officers, leaders of technology companies and religious leaders. Overall, Americans gave low ratings to these leaders in terms of behaving ethically and admitting mistakes. At least half of Americans think these leaders behave unethically at least some of the time, with 50% holding this belief about military leaders, 77% holding this belief about technology companies, and 81% holding this belief about members of Congress. According to Pew, these perceptions reflect beliefs about whether people think these groups care about people, handle resources responsibly, and communicate truthfully with the public.

Why Social Trust Matters

Social trust matters. As Harvard Business School professor Tarun Khanna writes, trusted institutions advance societies by simplifying daily life and enabling collaborative solutions. Trust is like grease in the social machine that makes people work well together.

But when trust is lacking, citizens are less likely to comply with laws, pay taxes, tolerate different ways of life, or support their neighbors. For social investors, building trust acts like an accelerant to all other goals. Inadequate trust can be an obstacle.

For maximum effect, therefore, philanthropists and others seeking large-scale social impact should take trust seriously when planning investments. This means choosing partners carefully. Partners who already enjoy public trust are likely to be more successful in whatever they are trying to do than those who do not. Social investors can also embrace building public trust as a goal in itself, as well as a means to an end. That is why initiatives as diverse as the Aspen Institute’s social fabric initiative, Weave, and READ community development centers in rural Asia, put building social trust and cohesion at the center of their work.

Trusted institutions advance societies by simplifying daily life and enabling collaborative solutions.
Tarun Khanna
Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School

Rebuilding trust is hard, but it is possible. Take the case of police reform in Camden, New Jersey. In 2012, the city of Camden, with its population of 77,000, was ranked as the most dangerous city in the United States, with a murder rate 18 times the national average. Citizens did not trust the police, according to the former police chief who led the reforms, due to a culture that “sought to dominate criminals with toughness.” The city rebuilt the police force, changed tactics, and focused on building relationships with the community. They focused on building trust. By 2019, homicides had dropped by 63% and crime generally has reached its lowest levels in decades. Citizens now cooperate and share information, helping police to close cases at a much higher rate and provide better services to the public.

A woman stands between police and protesters, Brooklyn, United States, June 2020.

The above case shows that trust can change when those leading are seen as acting competently and with good intentions. According to analysis by the OECD, these two components, competence and intentions, are the essential building blocks of trust in institutions. These dynamics likely drove a global “trust bump” in the initial weeks of the COVID-19 crisis. Edelman released a special update to its 2020 trust barometer, showing that all institutions gained in trust between January and April 2020. None showed trust gains as much as government, which became the most trusted institution for the first time in the barometer’s history. This is an example of how trust can be gained — or potentially lost — through performance, and it can be turned into lasting relational change if leaders continue to perform at a high level.

Social change leaders confess that partnership itself is not easy. But we can’t ignore this fact: building trust is essential to social progress. Philanthropists and others seeking large-scale social impact have both the opportunity and the leverage to help reverse vicious cycles of distrust. They can select, invest in, and amplify the work of partners who contribute to social trust. Through the power of partnership, they have the ability to build momentum for positive social change.

What can social investors do

to build social trust?

1. Find the Right Partners

Research shows, and common sense teaches, that trust does not extend equally across all social groups. Some institutions, some partners, will be more trusted than others. Finding the partners that are trusted by the groups you most want to embrace change will be key. These may not be the groups that are most well-known, most polished, or in your existing network. But it can be easier to raise visibility and build capacity than it is to build trust.

2. Deliver on Promises

The surest path to trust is for institutions to do their jobs well and provide real value to citizens — what scholar Valerie Braithwaite calls “trust as performance.” This sort of day-in/day-out performance over time rarely earns the spotlight but it is what ultimately matters most.

3. Be Inclusive

When access to opportunities or public services is blocked because of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, or other aspects of identity, public trust erodes. To enjoy the benefits of trust, public-serving institutions must treat their stakeholders fairly and work to extend opportunities to the marginalized.

4. Invest in Ethical Leaders

Leaders who serve — and are seen as serving others — are among the most important drivers of positive social change.   That’s why organizations as diverse as Acumen and the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs invest in programs to cultivate leaders.

5. Demand Transparency and Accountability

Transparency International’s 2018 index shows that most countries around the world are failing to make serious strides against corruption. Too many institutions meant to serve the public are co-opted to serve the needs of a few or even to extract benefits for their personal gain. The persistence of corruption, according to Transparency International’s Managing Director Patricia Moreira, creates a vicious cycle in which corruption erodes democratic  institutions  and those weakened institutions are  in  turn  less able to control corruption. Remedies exist. Social investors can support efforts that strengthen institutions, empower citizens to hold government accountable, and protect journalists and press freedoms. They can also demand that the organizations they support uphold the highest standards of transparency, accountability, and fairness.

Kristin M. Lord

Kristin M. Lord is the President and CEO of IREX. She brings more than 20 years of experience in the fields of education, foreign policy, global development, and security and peacebuilding to this role.

Prior to joining IREX in 2014, Kristin served in leadership roles at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Brookings Institution, and George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She has also served in a senior advisory role at the US Department of State and currently serves as a board member of the United States Global Leadership Coalition (USGLC) and the American University in Cairo (AUC). She received her MA and PhD from Georgetown University and her BA from American University.