By Dustyn Addington

Trust in institutions is an essential, yet lacking, a component in our society. The Nonprofit Quarterly recently published ““Nonprofits Must Care that the Public is Losing Trust in Institutions of Democracy,” by Jeannie Fox. Fox argued the following:

The institutions of democracy (like the courts, Congress, or a presidential administration) are distrusted to a higher degree than ever before.

Non-profit organizations are tightly connected to democratic institutions.

Non-profit organizations must be cautious and not take the public’s trust for granted.

Fox notes an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that reports: “…that while only 37 percent of adults polled reported trusting the Trump administration, an even smaller number (29 percent) reported trusting Congress.” Other organizations have produced similar findings:

Gallup reports that Americans’ average confidence in U.S. institutions is 32%.

The Harvard Institute of Politics reports that “nearly half of young Americans don’t have confidence in the fairness of U.S. Justice System, with deep divisions by race.”

The Edelman Trust Barometer finds: “The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012. With the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them.”

According to Reuters, “one in four Americans want their state to secede from the U.S.”

Fox rightly points out that this is distrust is a real threat to the functioning of government, non-profits, and society. I want to explore some reasons for distrust of democratic institutions and how that distrust carries over to non-profits.


Philosopher Carolyn McLeod describes trusting as requiring that a person or a group can: “1) be vulnerable to others (vulnerable to betrayal in particular); 2) think well of others, at least in certain domains; and 3) be optimistic that they are, or at least will be, competent in certain respects.”

Similarly, a foundational paper on organizational trust describes trust as the “willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.”

Trust therefore involves vulnerability, a positive appraisal of the other party’s integrity and intentions, and the expectation of the other party’s competence.

Three Reasons for Distrust

1. Perceived Incompetence

Fiscal conservatives are fond of Ronald Reagan’s famous line, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Disparaging anecdotes and folksy critiques abound (e.g. stories like NASA spending millions to develop a pen that could function in space, rather than use an equally functional pencil, which is not quite true). People appear to think that government does not do its job well, even when its intentions are good. This perception, whether accurate or overblown, points to a violation of McLeod’s requirements of trust: citizens do not have a positive appraisal of government’s competence.

2. A Lack of Integrity

Integrity is about alignment: your moral beliefs, your character, your words, and your actions. A person of integrity avoids hypocrisy, resists temptations to sell out and betray their promises, and generally keeps to their principles.

Elected representatives and appointed officials are the custodians of our state, and whether or not they have integrity matters. A lack of integrity means that policies, strategies, and institutions might be leveraged or outright betrayed out of expedience. Given the frequency of stories and jokes about the integrity of politicians, the desire for moral fortitude among our leaders might seem naïve. Without a hope for integrity, however, the future is bleak. Things will not get better without leaders working for their constituents, at least to some degree. And leaders will only feel pressure to behave with integrity if they are expected to.

In the midst of reports of individuals associated with President Trump’s campaign meeting with Russians prior to the election, Democratic Tennessee State Senator Jeff Yarbro spoke to the sweeping moral disapproval from the public when he tweeted about the absence of any punitive or condemnatory measures on the part of Congress toward President Trump:

Further, the moral outrage is not merely a partisan strategy. Conservative writer for the Federalist, Paul D. Miller, writes of the Republican Party’s support for Trump:

“Embracing Trump, as almost all the party’s leaders have done, is a colossal, world-historical, vast mistake; an inexplicable failure of moral courage; and a repugnant act of institutional suicide. It is shocking to see such rampant self-destruction sweep through the ranks of a once-great party.”

David French, writer for the National Review, speaking of the lack of Republican condemnation of Donald Trump Jr.’s clandestine meeting with Russians, said: “The other thing that’s so dispiriting is watching the legions of Republicans bury their heads in the sand and pretend like this isn’t happening.” Further, sarcastically referring to the abject hypocrisy involved in the low key response, French writes: “I’m sure that if there were similar revelations about Hillary Clinton, they would be equally blasé!” Hypocrisy is a big tell that one’s integrity is compromised.

These are not left-biased writers with an ax to grind. These are contributors to right-leaning and far-right-leaning institutions, the Federalist and the National Review. This disappointment and anger is moral in nature and it is directed at the characters of our elected officials. The lack of integrity among politicians may be old news, but the distrust it engenders does not fade away. It’s notable that belief in government’s lack of integrity were not produced by the current presidential administration alone, but is a trend that started in the 1960’s.

A distrust in the integrity of its leaders implies that citizens do not think that the government will behave in the interest of the greater good, especially when no one is looking. Already, two conditions for trust are violated. What about the third? Can be a person reasonably make themselves vulnerable to the government?

3. Reasonable Vulnerability

Arthur H. Miller describes alienation as follows:

“[A] sense of insufficient political influence implies a futility in bringing about desired social change or control through political efforts; hence, [those who sense that their efforts are futile] feel government is generally not to be trusted because it does not function for them. Such feelings of powerlessness and normlessness are very likely to be accompanied by hostility toward political and social leaders, the institutions of government, and the regime as a whole.

Feeling that you cannot effect change, or that the deck is stacked against you, breeds distrust. One feels like their life is being controlled by external forces, that they are being manipulated or subject to someone else’s agenda. The more one learns about the structural injustices in governmental actions and policies, the more one could reasonably feel skepticism about the government’s intentions and actions.

One overview of research on distrust describes distrust of health care systems:

“…individuals who report African American race were more aware of the risk of being “used as guinea pigs” without consenting and tended to think that health care providers prescribed medications as a way of “experimenting on people without permission” compared to white respondents (Durant et al., 2011). The awareness of victimization by medical systems is a source of values distrust; more importantly, the racial difference in the awareness further suggests a racial disparity in health care system distrust.”

Our nation’s makes vulnerability imprudent, especially among marginalized groups.

Untrustworthy by Association

Changing the Reagan quote above slightly, a non-profit showing up and saying, “We’re working with the government and we’re here to help,” might be similarly worrying for citizens. Connections between non-profit organizations and government run deep. In the realm of public health, there are complicated and long-running relationships between non-profits, departments of health, state and local medical institutions, and other governmental and social justice bodies. The explicit and implicit missions of many non-profits are to shore up democratic institutions, whether through defending voting rights, informing the public, or assisting in the mission of justice.

By working with government (and/or on issues of public policy), it appears as though non-profits are endorsing those governmental institutions as trustworthy. This implicit validation of government means that the poor reputation of democratic institutions may infect non-profits as well. This is especially relevant to the public’s fear of hidden agendas—specifically that non-profits use the lives and knowledge of marginalized groups to advance their goals, secure funding, and remake the world in the image of a strategic plan or theory of change (that may or may not benefit the community involved).

Allison Gauss writes that “Research shows that nonprofit organizations are perceived as more “warm” but less competent than for-profit businesses.” Moreover, she continues, as people perceive non-profit staff working on issues unrelated to their own self-interest, it “breeds discomfort, suspicion, and even hostility. We see someone working for the good of others and ask, ‘What are they getting out of this?’”

Even financially Americans are distrustful of non-profits. “Fear that money they give to a charity ‘won’t be used wisely’ is the top reason given by wealthy Americans for why they don’t donate more,” reports the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Distrust directed toward government can impact non-profits who work with government, but non-profits cannot cease working with government. Moreover, it is too much to hope that government, at any level, will fix all of its problems overnight. As a result, its reputation is unlikely to be repaired anytime soon.

While non-profits are not to be identified with government, and government partnership cannot and probably should not be avoided, something must be done to earn the trust necessary for a well-functioning society. After all, democratic institutions, when they are working as they should (contrasted with how they actual work or how they might have been designed to work), are likely the best bet at finding justice for marginalized groups.

Non-profits depend on the trust with the communities they work in so that they can provide needed services, make the right connections, and get people the help they need. At a time when trust is historically low, there is a real question of how this can be achieved. In Part II, I speak to Andrea Lopez-Diaz, Community Connector at the Foundation for Healthy Generations to discuss how non-profits can earn trust in communities.

Dustyn Addington is the Assistant Director of Learning and Strategy at the Foundation for Healthy Generations. He is also a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington, researching bias, knowledge, and judgments.

Twitter: @dustynaddington