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5 Things that Undermine Trust in Nonprofit Organizations


Puzzle pieces connected to form the word "Trust".

We know that organizational trust is foundational for institutional credibility, stakeholder relationships, and resource development but many nonprofits look in the wrong direction to establish or rehabilitate that trust. While external communication and public relations are important, building a truly resilient and trustworthy organization begins with internal culture. Below are five things that can get in the way of trust within an organization.


Offloading emotion

When people don’t take responsibility for tending to their own uncomfortable emotions, they can end up discharging them in unfiltered and unproductive ways. For some, this might look like uncontrolled outbursts, which can cause those on the receiving end to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In other cases, refusing to deal with emotion can show up as passive-aggressive behavior.

For those on the receiving end of offloaded emotion, it can be a disempowering experience. If the behavior is not addressed, others may feel that they have no choice but to try to manage around the unproductive behavior, which diminishes trust in leadership.


Back-Channeling

Have you ever participated in the meeting after the meeting? You know, the one where a few people gather to talk about what they really think but didn’t say in the official meeting? Saying one thing (or saying nothing) in an ‘official’ capacity and then doing something else ‘off the record,’ is one of the quickest ways to erode trust in a work culture.

Note: Back-channeling is often a symptom of a culture where people either don’t feel empowered to speak up or aren’t sure of the feedback channels that will allow them to be heard.

Overcommitting

Nonprofits organizations and the individuals who work in them are mission focused, but sometimes this can lead to having blinders on. When the gap between an organization’s desired impact and the reality of the actual time, resources, and capacity it can leverage gets blurry, it often leads to overcommitment at one or more levels of the organization. The result usually goes one of two ways: depletion of resources or underdelivering.

Depletion of resources is when we need all hands on deck to solve the crisis of overcommitment (whether we name it that or just make excuses for it). Repeated depletion can lead to staff (and often donors) feeling taken for granted and burned out. Underdelivering sends a message of disorganization and misuse of resources. It also undercuts the sense of mission achievement for staff, donors and other stakeholders.

Avoiding Feedback and Performance Evaluation

Taking the time to give and receive candid, actionable, and measurable feedback is crucial to a well-managed organization. When performance evaluations are delayed or become rote, it can create disconnection with staff. Regular feedback sessions are an opportunity to address issues early, create connection, and build an engaged culture. When leaders model listening, providing clear and direct feedback, and engaging with empathy, the ripple effects can often be felt throughout the organization.


Overworking/Poor Work-Life Balance

Everything rolls downhill. Even leaders who openly embrace the idea of work-life balance can have trouble practicing what they preach, which often leads to a culture of overwork in their organizations. Regardless of policy, the majority of staff members will take their cues from the top. Which means if leaders are overworking, the unspoken perception is that they expect the same from staff. Over time, this can lead to staff burnout, turnover, and continuity challenges.

Leaders who want to empower should model right-sizing their workday, setting reasonable boundaries, and reaping the benefits of more focused, strategic work.



Research on developing trust has shown that the most effective way to build it is in small, consistent steps. This is true for trust in one-on-one relationships, as well as within organizations. Where are the small areas that your organization is already building trust and how can they be expanded upon? Where does the most work need to happen?

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