Guest Blog Post: The Erosion of Trust

Trust is eroding. Public figures are more public than they ever have been, due to the expanding nature of social media and the news cycles. Everything they do is shared, documented, questioned, discussed. And they’re lying. Blatantly.

I’m not talking about political rhetoric or grand, un-achievable promises. I’m talking about specific actions that are knowingly and willingly taken in order to protect ego, power, and money.

“I have never taken performance enhancing drugs.”
Thanks, Lance. Thanks, Bonds. So much for pro-athlete role models.

“Your money is safe with us, we have sufficient capital to guarantee all deposits.”
Thanks, bankers.

“I did not cheat on my spouse.”
Thanks, well, a ton of politicians and celebrities. At least they probably (hopefully) weren’t role models.

Want to bring it closer to home?

“The California State Parks system is broke. Please donate!”
Or, not.

“We raised $7.5 billion to rebuild Haiti.”
Or, not.

It’s not philanthropy’s fault (mostly), but I can’t see how it’s not going to affect our sector. This is a worrying trend for nonprofits as they struggle to build relationships with funders, and with each other. Erosion is a slow process, but this phase of distrust is being propelled to a new level.

  • What’s your budget? “$800,000.”
  • How many kids did you help last year? “247.”
  • How many volunteers do you have? “173.”
  • Really? Should I believe you? Why?

What you say is no longer going to be taken at face value. Your audience may even assume that you aren’t telling the truth. The more people accept – and believe – that public figures are blatantly lying, the more pervasive that assumption will be. If a senator or state governor can lie, certainly the head of a state agency could be lying – or a small local agency. There are more watchdogs showing up (like our local voiceofsandiego.org), more data-wonks (follow @p2173). Your data will be questioned or ignored. Maybe that’s the way it should be, but it isn’t going to make the job of bringing donors to your cause any easier.

So in the face of this trend, what’s an organization to do?

  • Try to be as transparent, open, communicative, and responsive as possible.
  • Be honest and try to avoid spin.
  • Publish what you do in a way that an independent party could see and understand that you are doing what you say you are doing.

And stop lying. Please.

David Lynn, founder of Mission Edge, investment manager, data systems wonk, philanthropic life focus.

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