Has Donor Trust in Charities Changed?

By Guest blogger Roger Craver

In this age of “fake news”, “alternative facts” “hyper partisanship” and what seems to be a general erosion of trust, why should we even care?  And if we care what can we fundraisers do about it?

Of course, every fundraiser should care because trust is the lynchpin of a solid and sustainable relationship with a donor.  And because there are ways to measure trust, taking steps to increase the level of trust, and by doing so increase donor value and an organization’s net revenue.

There are all sorts of interpretations of how much the overall level of trust in charities affects the bottom line of the sector.  Of one claim I’m certain: like so many issues in today’s complex world “donor trust” is not some soft nebulous challenge to be solved by guessing or gut instinct.

Donor trust is a well-researched concept and the task of enhancing trust, taking steps to reduce mistrust, while complex and sometimes costly, are known and available.  However, as we’ve pointed out in earlier posts,  what’s even more costly is not taking steps to understand address the issue.

Major Study Details  Trust by Types of Donor, Types of Charities

Just how much has donor trust really eroded over the past five years?  No need to apply gut instincts or speculation.  Give.org of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, of which I’m a board member, has recently published a major study aimed at answering the question.

The short answer:  very little erosion.  The proper and more nuanced answer,  found in the pages of the free and downloadable Five Year Review of Trust and Giving Attitudesis not quite so simple.

Why? Because the level of trust depends on the type of donor and type of organization.    Here’s a brief summary of the report’s findings based on five years of tracking public attitudes about charity trust and giving among 2,100 adults across the U.S., and another 1,1000 adults in Canada:

  • “…with 63.9% of respondents rating the importance of trusting a charity before giving as a 9 or 10 (Essential) on a 10-point scale, and only 20.4% of respondents saying they highly trust charities.
  • “Between December 2017 and December 2020, the portion of participants that highly trust charities held relatively steady (16.8% to 18.5%). While not a large departure, the portion of participants that highly trust charities reached a high of 20.4% in December 2021.
  • “Our results suggest that reliance on trust as a giving prerequisite has eroded in the past five years, with the portion of respondents who rate the importance of trusting a charity before giving decreasing steadily from 73.0% in December 2017 to 63.9% in December 2021. Still, the importance of trusting a charity before giving is most highly rated among people in the higher giving brackets. 79.6% of respondents who donated more than $5,000 annually rated the importance of trusting before giving as “essential.”
  • “Respondents were asked to assess their trust for 13 charity categories. The portion of respondents that “highly trust” each charity type increased for 12 out of 13 categories between December 2020 and December 2021. The exception was environmental organizations, which dropped moderately (0.4%) and had the least portion of respondents (16.0% ) expressing high trust levels.
  • “Six charity categories experienced more than a 4-point shift in high trust between December 2017 and December 2021: veteran’s, religious, civil rights and community action, police and firefighters, international relief, and environmental organizations. After 4 years (2017-2020) of steady decline, the portion of participants that highly trust religious organizations (28.8% ) and veteran’s organizations (27%)  increased more than 4 points between December 2020 and December 2021 alone.

On the comparative news front, trust in charities stacks up consistently quite well compared to other institutions, including organized religion, banks, business, media, and government.  For example, in December 2021 77.1% of the respondents reported trusting charities more than government and 67.5% trusted charities more than business.

There’s a treasure trove of other goodies you’re certain to find of interest depending on your own interests, your own organization,  your interest in various generations, how trust varies with race and ethnicity of the donor, how Canadian donors differ from American donors.

You can download the report here, free of charge.  Don’t miss the sections on what participants identify as signals that make them trust a charity, what deters them from donating and just how and why the age of the donor matters when it comes to trust. Clearly, as the report notes with an understatement of understatements, “there’s ample space to build trust.”

Fondly, Roger Craver

P.S. For readers interested –and each of us should be –in how much Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) affects donor trust and how meaningful it is in the giving process I recommend you also download Give.org’s Donor Trust Special Report: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

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