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Understanding trust in the charitable sector - part 1: an exploration

Understanding trust in the charitable sector - part 1: an exploration

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As a thought leader in the charitable sector, Imagine Canada is working to better understand the concept of 'trust', so that charity leaders can work on increasing their trustworthiness with the public and other stakeholders.

This summer, I had the privilege of working as the Behavioural Insights Assistant with the Strategic Communications and Research & Evaluation teams at Imagine Canada. We are currently exploring the meaning, influences on, and importance of trust in charities.

I started the summer with curiosity and the desire to further unravel this mysterious concept. As many academics do, I started my search for answers by collecting hundreds of academic articles on the topic. It soon became clear that there isn’t a single unified definition of trust that captures the concept. In fact, a vast majority of articles commented on this lack of cohesion or an agreed upon definition within the literature.

As such, I've put together a two-part blog series to delve into this subject more comprehensively. This post, part 1, focuses on definitions of 'trust', while part 2 focuses on building and re-building trust in your organization.

Is there a decline in trust in the charitable sector?

The discussion on trust is not new in the charitable sector, as many have studied its meaning, implications, and impact. Imagine Canada and The Muttart Foundation’s 2013 report Talking about Charities, identifies levels of public trust in the charitable sector as high and stable, especially in comparison with the business sector and government. However, trust in certain charities, such as international aid, environmental and religious organizations, has been on the decline since 2000. While trust continues to remain higher in charities (79%) than all levels of governments (local 57%; federal 45%; provincial 44%) and major corporations (41%), there is a decline in trust in leaders in all sectors. A more skeptical society could threaten the public trust necessary for the charitable sector to prosper.

The challenge of defining what 'trust' actually means

Since the concept of trust is abstract and applicable in countless fields of study, the literature is nebulous and inconclusive. While researchers may conceptualize trust in different ways given their academic background, there are two commonalities that seem to be central to the concept of trust at large – vulnerability and expectations. Trust seems to be a decision or reaction to put oneself in a vulnerable position with the expectation that the trusted party will act in a way that is beneficial to the trustee (Rousseau, 1998). At an individual level, there are three components that work in tandem on our ability to trust – cognitive, emotional, and behavioural.

The cognitive component of trust contributes to the decision to trust through the evaluation of evidence that the trustee will behave in a desirable way (Lewis & Weigert, 1985). Theoretically, if one relies solely on evidence, trust would be a rational decision that could be encouraged through the reporting of accurate statistics and information. However, as emotions impact the trusting process, trust is not always rational – nor need it be. The emotions we experience when trying to decide if we trust someone/something, and the emotions we expect to feel based on the expected outcome of the trusting relationship, impact our decision to trust (Dunning et al., 2012). A study by Yang et al. (2016) suggests that some individuals are trusting of organizations with which their values align, simply on the basis of value similarity. As well, whether one uses an emotional or rational basis to trust depends the individual and the situation, which makes it a difficult behavioural process to predict. In most cases, it’s a bit of both.

What are the types of trust?

One of the major challenges in conversations about trust is that there are various types of trust that work at different levels. When discussing trust, it is important to clarify what type of trust we are talking about because, while they are all related, each concept is distinct.

  • Dispositional trust is our personal tendency to trust others in general; how trusting we are is one of our characteristics.
  • Interpersonal trust is when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable towards people we know, with the expectation that they will act with our best interest in mind.
  • Institutional trust is closely related to dispositional trust, but it specifically pertains to having positive expectations of an institution as a whole, such as the government, charitable, or business sectors (Hamm et al., 2011).
  • General trust refers to faith in a broad society or sections of society that aren’t well-known to us (Ulsaner, 2002).
  • Specific trust is faith in particular organizations and people known to us.

In order to apply these various types of trust, consider the following scenario:

Lydia, a regular donor to Imagine Canada, believes that society is generally trustworthy (general trust). She is easygoing and gives people the benefit of the doubt until they give her a strong reason to distrust them (dispositional trust). Lydia shares her secrets with her trustworthy friend, Susan, but doesn’t trust her talkative friend, Betty (interpersonal trust). Lydia trusts the charitable sector because she sees nonprofits as providing essential services motivated by the drive to do social good (institutional trust). She supports Imagine Canada because she trusts them as an effective organization with the right motivations, but she does not trust charity XYZ because they were sanctioned by the CRA for inaccurate reporting of financial information (specific trust).

Why is trust important to the charitable sector?

Trust is important to the charitable sector because it fuels the relationship between the sector and the public – it underwrites the social contract between them. It forms the basis of the relationships between charities and those who receive their services, as well as those who donate to them.

Through building trusting relationships with community members, the charitable sector grows. In this way, trusting relationships benefit everyone. Charities cannot serve a public that doesn’t trust them.

As well, many seemingly independent factors (i.e. reputation, familiarity with charities, etc.) and philanthropic behaviour are mediated by trust (Furneaux & Wymer, 2015). To encourage philanthropic behaviour, charities must consider ways to gain and maintain the trust of the public. As a sector that relies on generosity and goodwill, trust is essential for long-term sustainability.

In part 2 of this series, we look at how trust breaks down and what can be done to rebuild it.


Dunning, D., Fetchenhauer, D., & Schlösser, T. M.(2012). Trust as a social and emotional act: Noneconomic considerations in trust behavior. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33(3), 686-694.

Furneaux, C., & Wymer, W. (2015). Public trust in Australian charities: Accounting for cause and effect. Third Sector Review, 21(2), 99-127.

Hamm, J. A., PytlikZillig, L. M., Tomkins, A. J., Herian, M. N., Bornstein, B. H., & Neeley, E. M.(2011). Exploring separable components of institutional confidence. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 29(1), 95-115.

Lewis, J. D., & Weigert, A. (1985). Trust as a Social Reality. Social Forces, 63(4), 967-985.

Rousseau, D. M., Sitkin, S. B., Burt, R. S., & Camerer, C. (1998). Not So Different After All: A Cross-Discipline View of Trust. Academy of Management Review, 23(3), 393-404.

Yang, Y., et al. (2016). Value similarity: the key to building public trust in charitable organizations. Voluntary Sector Review 7(1): 47-66.

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