In an era of declining trust, how can NGOs buck the trend?

Photo by: Terry Johnston / CC BY

Trust in global institutions is at an all-time low. The results of the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual online survey of trust, paint a picture of a broken global system and a population with little hope for things to improve. NGOs are caught in the web of distrust — a long way from the first survey in 2001 when NGOs were considered a rising influence.

The survey of 32,200 people in 28 countries, representing diversity in gender, age, education and income, found that there has been a decline in trust in the past year for our four main institutions: business, government, media and NGOs. At the bottom of the trust pile is government. Only 41 percent of survey respondents had trust in government. The most trustworthy are NGOs, although they are also on the decline. Only 53 percent of respondents showed trust in in NGOs, a large decline from a peak of 66 percent trust in 2014.

Global breakdown of distrust

Of the 28 countries included in the 2017 survey, more than two-thirds show distrust toward all institutions. Russia suffers the lowest level of trust — just 34 percent trusting institutions. Poland and Japan follow with a mere 35 percent expressing trust.

At the opposite end of the scale, India has seen trust grow from 65 percent in 2016 to 72 percent in 2017.

Perceptions of trust in NGOs specifically has dropped 2 percent since 2016. In eight countries — Russia, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the U.K. and Poland — NGOs are distrusted. In 11 countries, trust levels are “neutral,” while the remaining nine countries maintain high trust. In India and Mexico trust is at 71 percent. China has suffered the largest drop in trust of NGOs (10 percent), followed by Argentina, Germany, Ireland and Russia (each 6 percent).

More than half of survey respondents believe that systems are failing. Disillusionment is occurring among all levels of society, including highly educated survey respondents, and fear is high with corruption, globalization and eroding social values leading causes of fear.

Edelman’s survey respondents are a nationally representative online sample that aims to closely mirror the general population within the country. However, in countries with poorer internet penetration, results overly focus on the responses of the population with higher incomes and levels of education.

What creates distrust in NGOs?

In the past year, scandals have impacted the development sector and public perceptions of NGO capability. World Vision and the United Nations Development Programme were accused by Israel of working to support Hamas. Cross-border relief operations to Syria were implicated in a corruption probe. And the closure of Bridge Academies in Uganda left questions hanging over programs supported by respected donors.

“NGOs earn and lose social capital just like people do,” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, explained to Devex. “They engage in corruption, get too close for comfort to government, and lose trust. They don't keep their promises with recipients — they can overpromise and underdeliver.”

Within Cambodia through his research on aid dependence in Cambodia, Ear has seen NGOs engaged in corruption and nepotism, or shut down due to financial mismanagement. “All the problems any organization faces, NGOs face too. Especially not listening to the people whose lives matter.”

For NGOs, time is a barrier that is not easily overcome. “A foundational concern, particularly for international organizations, is how to talk about impact,” explains Tim Middlemiss, communications director at Agency, a communication agency focused on community and civil society. “Development isn't quick, it's not always visible, and it can be messy — none of those things lend themselves particularly well to report backs.”

Within donor countries, meanwhile, a barrier to trust is fundraising.

“Reliance on heavy-handed fundraising activity, like street promoters, that have a poor perception amongst the general public, creates or emphasises an unhelpful perception of charities,” Middlemiss said. “There's an art in balancing confronting and nurturing fundraising activities. While it may help grow lists and convert regular donors, as complaints around street promoters increase, and negative media coverage persists, it will also drive wedges between organizations and potential supporters.”

Is transparency a key to building trust?

Middlemiss explained that the charity sector has been quick to show its transparency by highlighting low administrative costs, for example. “There is a notion that indulging in that conversation frames the relationship with a donor, or potential donor, as one of minimizing outlay, instead of maximizing impact,” he said. Publishing information on the character and interests of the NGO and external oversights are common strategies for NGO transparency.

But new research from Vincent Keating of the University of Southern Denmark and Erla Thrandardottir from the University of Manchester suggests that the most effective means for NGOs to build trust is through social models. Solidarity for a common cause, for example, enables a greater trust regardless of transparency measures that NGO may have taken.

In comparison, for some NGOs, Keating and Thrandardottir believe transparency can suggest untrustworthiness to donors. “Transparency might lead to greater trust among some actors, and we suggest that this might be the case with governments and large donors,” Keating explained to Devex. Yet what one donor prizes may not be the basis for trust among other donors or individual givers, who place higher value on social trust, he said. “As it stands, it seems that the accountability agenda is taking demands from one group of donors and generalizing these to assumed demand from all donors.”

Keating said that NGOs may need to pause and think more about how to cater to the needs of different types of donors. That may mean rearranging priorities so that social trust relationships are not overlooked by the demands of the accountability agenda.

The paper by Keating and Thrandardottir is the first step in a larger research agenda that they hope will open up issues of NGO trust to greater scrutiny and debate. “Included in this will almost certainly be recommendations for NGOs’ takes into account different types of strategies to build and maintain trust with different types of donors,” Keating said.

What are the solutions?

The Edelman Trust Barometer found that organizations are deemed trustworthy when their communication feels open, honest, spontaneous, personal and to the point. Tony Milne, campaign director for the Campaign for Australian Aid, agrees.

“We work to build trust with our supporters and our public audience by speaking authentically and honestly,” he told Devex. To counter distrust, they articulate what small wins look like along the way toward achieving bigger picture goals and outcomes. “It's also important that we don't just tell negative stories, but that we tell stories of hope and progress and stories about a positive alternative.”

Within countries, Ear advises that listening and respecting the expertise of locals will improve trust. “You have no monopoly over expertise,” he said. “Locals have local knowledge and expertise. You wouldn’t steer a ship into an unknown harbor as a captain, so empower recipients through participation — and I don’t mean choose A, B, or C from my predetermined menu, but really letting them be their own agents of change.”

Working with governments requires a similar strategy, but Ear warns NGOs against co-option — or perceived co-option — by government. “Don’t start drinking the Kool-Aid and believe that you are now part of the government and a big shot minister just because you are included or feted. Truth is, they often just want your money, not your ideas.”

Distrust of other institutions may also create more opportunities for NGOs. “Groups that are positioned to provide information could point to distrust in governments as a raison d'être,” Middlemiss said. “More than that, it can provide fundraising opportunities — like the rise of the rage donation in Trump era U.S.”

But there is a fine line between trust and distrust.

“Trust is very hard to build, but easy to destroy,” Ear said. “Don’t accommodate power. Speak truth to power. As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.’ I couldn't agree more.”

Regardless of perceptions of trust, experts say the mission for NGOs should remain the same: to engage people in their story of impact, and to prove that impact is happening.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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