Trust in Civil Society

The importance of trust to making societal progress is crucial. Independent Sector partners with Edelman Data & Intelligence to produce a report about trust in U.S. nonprofits and philanthropies.

Public trust is the currency of the nonprofit sector. The public’s belief that nonprofits will “do the right thing” is one of the central reasons the sector exists. Communities have relied upon nonprofits to provide trusted sources of information, life-sustaining services, environmental stewardship, and places of refuge for centuries. Nonprofits also work with our nation’s diverse communities to build a healthy, equitable society so that everyone can thrive. In today’s highly polarized environment, understanding and managing trust has never been more important for organizations to own their license to operate, lead, and succeed. Given the outsized importance of trust, it is imperative to assess the status of that trust and how the sector can strengthen our most valuable asset.

Independent Sector, in partnership with Edelman Data & Intelligence, is releasing our third annual report of exclusive survey findings that explore the nuances of trust in American nonprofit, philanthropic organizations, and other institutions. We also provide recommendations on how we can do better. Building on Independent Sector’s four decades of bringing together the nonprofit and charitable community for the common good and Edelman’s experience studying trust in both the global and U.S. context, we set out to conduct this national survey, totaling 3,015 American adults, to assess general population trust in the sector (philanthropy and nonprofits) and uncover the factors that drive trust in the sector.

Key Insights

Trust in philanthropy held steady. Trust in nonprofits saw a small downward trend during the pandemic.

Today, 56% of Americans say they trust nonprofits, down a statistically significant 3-points from 2020 (59%). Philanthropy trust edged down from 36% to 34% (same period). This difference is not statistically significant.

Low trust across institutions, but nonprofits among most trusted.

Trust in major American institutions is low. Only nonprofits, small businesses, and community members are trusted by a majority or near-majority of the public. Less than one-third say the same of government, large corporations, and the news media.

Integrity and purpose are critical to trust.

Distrusters of nonprofits and philanthropy point to perceived fund mismanagement and cases of corruption and scandals. Neutral trusters say financial transparency and proof of impact are necessary. Public figure endorsements, communicating clear organizational mission, and demonstrating results remain top trust drivers.

Trust among women declined during the pandemic.

Women’s trust in nonprofits declined by 5 points since 2020. Men’s trust remained stable. This may be partly explained by women’s lower reported financial well-being and familiarity with nonprofits (both correlate with trust) compared to men. This raises questions about whether trends regarding women’s slower recovery post-COVID correlate with nonprofit trust.

Gen Z is skeptical of the sector, though views have not solidified.

57% of Gen Z Americans say giving directly to individuals and causes makes a bigger impact than giving to nonprofits. Gen Z trust is lower than average for nonprofits and philanthropy. Lower trust among Gen Z is due to a high proportion of reported neutral feelings toward the sector.

Trust is tied to financial well-being and education.

Americans rating their financial situation as excellent or good were 17 points and 20 points more likely to have high trust in nonprofits and philanthropy, respectively. A college degree is more predictive of trust in the sector than any other variable. When education and finances are controlled, respondents’ race for nearly all groups is not a predictor of trust.

Related Resources