Trust in Civil Society

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. 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 this second annual report of survey findings that explore the nuances of trust in American nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. Building on Independent Sector’s four decades of bringing together the 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 two national surveys, totaling 8,000 American adults, to assess general population trust in the sector (philanthropy and nonprofits) and uncover the factors that drive trust in the sector.

Revised 7.23.21:  The report has been revised to accurately distinguish between percent and point changes in responses.

2021 Key Findings


Institutional trust is declining – and nonprofits and philanthropy are not immune to this trend

Trust in all institutions is returning to pre-pandemic levels – including a small drop in trust in nonprofits and a more significant decline for philanthropy.


Trust disparities deepen and align with broader social trends

Americans with lower incomes, lower levels of education, and residents of rural areas have less trust in the sector than their wealthier, more educated peers. The age gap also widened: Gen Z reported a significant trust decrease, while the oldest respondents increased.


Public confidence in the sector as a force for good remains

Americans’ expectations for the sector remain high – 84% of respondents said they were confident in the ability of nonprofits to strengthen American society, and 65% said the same of philanthropy.


Civic action and trust reinforce one another

Sizable majorities say trust is a necessary factor for them to support nonprofit organizations. However, donors, volunteers, and voters also report higher levels of trust, which hints at a potential two-way relationship between trust and civic action.


Greater engagement breeds trust

Those who are familiar with nonprofits and philanthropy are more likely to trust them. For example, those who regularly receive services from nonprofits report higher than average trust scores in nonprofits broadly.


Purpose and integrity fuel trust in individual nonprofits, but sector drivers less clear

Statistical modeling shows the top factors contributing to people’s trust lie in individual nonprofit’s ability to demonstrate purpose and integrity.

Download the Full "Trust in Civil Society 2021" Report