A sign showing a red circle surrounding a man walking. The is a large “Trust” sticker covering the man’s head.
Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

Trust in American institutions is eroding—and the nonprofit sector is not immune.

Independent Sector, a nonprofit trade group that monitors the sector, has measured a decline in Americans’ trust in nonprofits since 2020, when it first began tracking that metric via an annual survey of over 3,000 people.

The stakes, Independent Sector notes, are high.

But the group’s latest report, released this June, contained some good news for the sector: the survey found a rise in trust in nonprofits for the first time in four years—and that nonprofits remain the most trusted of various American institutions surveyed, from corporations to local and state government to the news media to the federal government.

The report states:

Trust in other sectors—like government, business, and media—continues to decline, leaving nonprofits the most trusted sector in this survey. Trust in philanthropy remains lower than trust in nonprofits, and trust in private foundations and high-net-worth individuals remains much lower than in 2020, the first year for which we have data (8).

The stakes, Independent Sector notes, are high. While trust might not be measured the same way as other metrics of industry health—financial ones, especially—it’s no less important to the sector:

Given the outsized importance of trust to our sector, it is imperative to regularly assess the status of trust so, ultimately, we can fashion the policy and practice changes needed to build this critical asset.…Without the public’s trust, everything we do to advance our collective missions becomes harder, if not impossible (5).

Key Findings

The latest Independent Sector report breaks down five key findings:

  1. After four years of decline, trust in nonprofits has rebounded by 5 points to 57%.
  2. Trust in philanthropy remains steady at 33%, lower than trust in nonprofits.
  3. Americans trust nonprofits to reduce national divisions more than they trust corporations, government, or media.
  4. Americans have less trust in nonprofits to advocate for public policies and conduct nonpartisan voter engagement.
  5. There are clear pathways for nonprofits to increase public trust in the sector (7).“Without the public’s trust, everything we do to advance our collective missions becomes harder, if not impossible.”

These findings represent a mixed bag in terms of news for the sector. The finding that trust in the sector appears to have “rebounded” in the last year, for example, is significantly tempered by the fact that this comes after four years of decline. With America once again at a political precipice, the one-year gain should be celebrated with caution.

Among other interesting findings was that while trust in philanthropy was overall significantly lower than that in nonprofits generally, private foundations saw a modest increase in trust, while trust declined when it came to “corporate philanthropy and high net worth individuals” (16).

Less Confidence in Public Advocacy

Despite relatively high marks of trust for nonprofits in their ability or role in improving society overall, the numbers look very different when it comes to nonprofit engagement in public policy advocacy and nonpartisan voter engagement.

Only about one-fourth of respondents said they trusted nonprofits to avoid partisan politics (10), despite laws barring traditional nonprofits from participating in elections. About the same (low) proportion of respondents trusted nonprofits to “assist in the writing of or revision of laws and regulations,” even though nonprofits are free to do so.

Meanwhile, fewer than one-third of respondents expressed confidence in nonprofits providing “factual, unbiased information about political candidates and policy issues” (10).

There exist “clear pathways” to increasing trust in the sector.

One obvious question posed by these findings is why nonprofits are trusted to improve society yet not trusted nearly so much to engage in policy advocacy and voter engagement.

The report’s own analysis argues that “respondents believe nonprofit and philanthropic foundations becoming engaged in politics is disingenuous to their stated purpose and mission” (30).

As we’ve covered before, Independent Sector found in a previous report this year on the health of the nonprofit sector that only about one-quarter of nonprofits engage in advocacy and lobbying—compared to three-quarters just two decades ago.

The same report noted that just 13 percent of nonprofits reported engaging voters in 2022, even though nonprofits can—and should, some argue forcefully—conduct nonpartisan voter engagement work.

“Clear Pathways” to Increase Trust  

Despite ongoing challenges to the nonprofit sector in securing the trust of Americans, the Independent Sector report finds reason to be hopeful for the future and argues that there exist “clear pathways” to increasing trust in the sector.

For example, four in five Americans who volunteer, the report says, had experiences that made them view nonprofits more favorably (11).

And about 60 percent of respondents said that their trust in nonprofits would increase if nonprofits were more accountable to their ethical principles (11).

The report’s recommendations for building trust in the nonprofit sector, therefore, include committing to a set of organizational guidelines or ethical principles and creating more first-hand experiences like volunteering.