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What Do People Think About Nonprofits? Threats and Opportunities for Your Nonprofit Brand

From cancer centers to climate organizations, the nonprofit sector is diverse. Nonprofits across the world span issue areas, bases, scope, size, audiences, and function. The sector is as diverse as that of the business sector, which houses companies from Patagonia to Exxon Mobil. 

Right now though, sharing a common sector means that nonprofits across the globe have another commonality—an alarming one for our sector: According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, people trust businesses more than nonprofits

This wasn’t always the case. As recently as 2020, people trusted nonprofits more than businesses, which begs the question: Why do people trust businesses more than nonprofits now, even though the bottom line for nonprofits—social impact—hasn’t changed? We work in the nonprofit sector not for profit, but for progress, after all. 

The Edelman Trust Barometer is the standard-setting pulse check on popular sentiment regarding the nonprofit, business, government, and media sectors. It’s not necessarily granular, but as a sector, we’d be remiss to ignore the findings of the report—especially when they alert us to a trust decline in nonprofits. Both nonprofits looking to build trust and nonprofits looking to maintain trust can benefit from understanding the sentiment surrounding our sector in positioning our brands. 

When we first learned about this trust dip here at Constructive, we were surprised. We know the good of the sector. Everyday, we work with people who make sacrifices to advance healthcare access, educational equity, solutions to climate change, and so many more of the tools needed to build a better, more just world. We know the power of nonprofits, especially those whose brands authentically engage and interact with their communities. 

So why do people trust businesses more than nonprofits?

As the saying goes, “Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.” Right now, our sector has an incredible opportunity at hand: we have the opportunity to rebuild or fortify public trust in our brands. If we’re looking to collectively manage trusted brands that are capable of building the level of trust and motivation needed to achieve our highest aspirations, the implications of a landscape in which people trust businesses more than nonprofits are profound. 

And consumer businesses (those that we often think of first when we think of the sector) have somewhat of an advantage here. When someone buys something from a business, they get a tangible product or service in return—and so, a relationship with a brand is sparked. At risk of oversimplification, nonprofits don’t necessarily deliver products or services. What we do deliver, is a relationship with a brand, one built on the trust that the nonprofit is capable of and working toward something the audience finds valuable. 

Without that trust, we can’t cultivate an engaged audience, foster enduring relationships, or build the momentum needed to enact long-term social change. Our capacity to advance social change hinges on our understanding of the public’s perceptions: our audiences, members, donors, stakeholders, and constituents—plus all of their communities. 

So when it comes to building that trust for nonprofits, brand perception matters. The way that people feel about your brand is an excellent barometer of trust in your organization. And brands are like people, people often make judgements based on first impressions that go a long way towards quickly determining if they trust or distrust a brand. Building alignment between your brand and your organization’s activities is essential to building trust in your nonprofit. 

And nonprofits don’t exist in a vacuum. The trust in our brand and our organizations is influenced by inflation, natural disasters, climate crises, geopolitical unrest, and more. So we’re breaking down the Edelman Report, and sharing key findings for nonprofits from the latest public temperature check. We’ll explore strengths for nonprofits, like the rising interest in social impact amongst Gen Z, as well as weaknesses, like what messaging alienates people and why? 

With polarization at all-time highs, trust at all-time lows, and an election year quickly approaching, the stakes couldn’t be higher for nonprofit brands to build the trust and brand engagement needed to continue putting progress over profit. 

Strengths for Nonprofit Brands: 

In a world struggling to address issues of climate, political polarization, and income disparities, people want to advance social progress. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Report sheds light on sector-specific advantages for nonprofits amidst a social impact awakening. The report reveals three key areas where nonprofits brands excel: a growing interest in social impact, the sector’s ethical standing, and the sector possessing the building blocks of public trust. Nonprofit brands, if they harness these strengths, can build the bridges our polarized world so desperately needs.

1. More people are interested in social impact—for engagement and employment. 

One of the greatest strengths for nonprofit brands outlined in the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Report is that people—in their consumption and their production—are interested in advancing social impact. The latest report shows that 63% of people are willing to buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs and values (Edelman 2023, 28). That’s a 5-point increase in just one year (Edelman 2022, 26), a year in which 52% of people said that capitalism’s harms outweigh its goods (Edelman 2022, 23). 

Social issues are increasingly top of mind. In fact, researchers are predicting that Gen Z may be one of the most charitable generations yet. Of all the generations, members of Gen Z “are the most likely to say they donate because they feel it’s just the right thing to do.” Increased politicization and polarization of everyday issues is dangerous, full stop. But the growing awareness of issues of politics, climate, and human rights are breeding a more engaged, social impact-oriented populace. 

These strengthening social contracts between people and the organizations (businesses and nonprofit brands) that they engage with extend beyond advocacy or consumption. More and more people want to work for an ethical bottom line. According to the 2023 Report, 69% of people believe that having a societal impact is a strong expectation or even a deal breaker when considering a job (Edelman 2023, 28). 

Where millennials entered the job market during a once-in-a-century downturn, Gen Z entered during a once-in-a-century pandemic, a moment of upheaval and social reckoning. Gen Z wants to see companies commit—and stick to—their DEI commitments and ESG goals. The “green collar” revolution is here, and people are more than willing to take pay cuts to put their time and energy in the impact space. When nonprofits authentically embody the values of a social impact-oriented audience, they can build relationships with audiences and employees that are founded on a shared understanding of the nonprofit’s brand, mission, vision, and goals.

2. Nonprofits are considered the most ethical industry.

If you’re an organization that depends on member, volunteer, or donor engagement, your reputation means everything. One strength from the report is that people view nonprofits in 2023 as the most ethical sector compared to businesses, government, and media (Edelman 2023, 26). Nonprofits earned an ethical score of 22 compared to businesses’ score of 18, media’s -8, and government’s -11. 

In the public’s eye, the government and media fuel a cycle of distrust. The majority of people believe that journalists and government officials are divisive forces (Edelman  2023, 21). Nonprofit leaders on the other hand, are viewed more as unifiers—alongside educators and business leaders (Edelman  2023, 21). Nonprofit brands can rally people around causes, it’s in our best interest to unite. With 68% of people believing that brands celebrating what brings us together and emphasizing our common interest would strengthen our social fabric, it’s no wonder why people see nonprofits in 2023 as ethical unifiers (Edelman 2023, 36).

Our social fabric is fraught with polarization and parallel media ecosystems. Sure, many for profit organizations try to appeal to as many people as possible since they have it benefits their bottom line. But for nonprofit brands, uniting people and bridging divides has a higher purpose. When you’re working to solve issues as existential as climate change or problems that require herculean international cooperation, like providing aid to Ukraine, we’re looking at an all hands on deck approach. Crises compel us to set aside differences and embrace collaboration. A problem shared is a problem halved—nonprofits have so much more to gain than boosted sales when we unite people around a common cause.

People care deeply about ethics, about justice, about moral integrity—and they see nonprofits keeping their promises to stakeholders. Take these guidelines from the National Council of Nonprofits

“It is so important that charitable nonprofits continuously earn the public’s trust through their commitment to ethical principles, transparency, and accountability. If only one community member or donor loses confidence in a charitable nonprofit because the nonprofit behaves unethically, that’s one too many.”

Virtue begets virtue. Nonprofit brands, which have earned the reputation as the most ethical sector, have an inherent advantage: Our bottom line is intangible—we look at our communities, our children’s health, our climate as indicators of success. When we lean into our ethical commitments and authentically embody them in our communications and actions, we can build more trust in our brand and its virtues. 

3. Nonprofits already hold the key ingredients to public trust.

Trust is everything in the nonprofit space. As we mentioned, trust is built in drops and lost in buckets. One key finding is that nonprofit brands already possess several of the building blocks of public trust. The report demonstrates that nonprofits are seen as the most trustworthy sector, with 51% of people believing that NGOs reliably provide trustworthy information, compared to business’s 48%, media’s 42% and government’s 39% (Edelman 2023, 10). 

Aside from people viewing nonprofits as unifiers, lower ethics scores across government, media, and business can be, in part, attributed to the inflammatory nature and newsworthiness of those sectors’ scandals. Take Theranos  for example: In 2021, there were 3,755 pieces of news coverage on Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos—and that was before the popular Hulu series, trials, and sentencings. 

The cycle of distrust surrounding other sectors—and the mistrust of their information—leaves a gap that nonprofits can fill with unbiased, scientific information. The report finds that a key ingredient to earning that trust: being a trustworthy source of information. People believe that providing high quality information insulates business action from politicization—and that basing action on science breeds trust (Edelman 2023, 34). Leaning into a nonprofit’s commitment to taking evidence-based actions and sharing only high quality research and information can help build or maintain trust in a nonprofit brand. 

Weaknesses for Nonprofit Brands: 

The 2023 Edelman Report demonstrates strengths for nonprofits, but it also unveils the sector’s struggles—most notably in public trust and political polarization. Individual organizations are left to address these weaknesses, but the sector as a whole must bridge a widening gap between the public and other institutions. All the while, since people trust businesses more than nonprofits, our brands are left playing catch up. 

1. People trust businesses more than nonprofits. 

In the eye of the public, corporations are more trustworthy than nonprofits. According to the latest report, businesses have a 3-point trust advantage over nonprofits (Edelman 2023, 8). Nonprofits remain more trusted than both governments and the media, but people have turned to businesses to meet their institutional trust needs. And while nonprofits still hold the top ethical spot, this gap has shrunk every year since 2020 (Edelman 2023, 26). Meanwhile, the business sector’s ethic’s score has risen by 19 points in the last three years, placing businesses closer to NGO’s in public perception than ever before. But it gets worse: businesses in 2023 earned a competence score of 11, nonprofits landed at -3—the public does not generally see NGOs as competent at all it seems. 

Put simply: people trust businesses more than nonprofits, businesses are outpacing nonprofits in perceived ethical gains, and people believe nonprofits are less competent than businesses. 

This general lack of trust in nonprofits’ competence undermines several key nonprofit activities, like collecting individual donations, gaining public support for campaigns, recruiting volunteers, and reaching niche communities. Members of the public who don’t trust nonprofits will be less likely to do things like donate to them, sign petitions for them, stay up to date on their news, or attend events. A 2023 report from Americorps and the US Census Bureau released shows that people were opting to help their neighbors over formal volunteering. 

“Nearly 51% of the US population age 16 and over, or 124.7 million people, informally helped their neighbors between September 2020 and 2021 at the high of the pandemic, according to the latest Volunteering and Civic Life in America research released today. 

In response to a separate question, more than 23% of people in that age group, or 60.7 million, said they formally volunteered through an organization during the same period.” 

The lack of trust could span wider than your member base—the very communities you work to serve might not trust you either. Disadvantaged individuals have largely been failed by large systems and institutions, and what makes your organization’s commitment different from other empty promises? If someone doesn’t trust you, why would they reach out for resources or support? 

The operational consequences of lost trust in nonprofit brands are clear, but we must also consider the larger societal consequences of businesses’ rise in the public eye. While many large businesses actually take steps toward increased sustainability and public responsibility, there are also a large number of corporations greenwashing and misleading the public about their commitments. For every one company with concrete sustainability commitments, about two admit to greenwashing their way to the top of the perception pyramid. 

With trust in businesses outranking nonprofit brands, consumers might feel satisfied with shopping at a purportedly sustainable company. And it might feel like that purchase checks off their personal social impact duties without ever coming in contact with a nonprofit. Businesses seem to be beating out nonprofits for the public’s time, attention, trust, and dollars. Nonprofits can communicate competence and integrity through their brands and communications to begin winning back the public. 

2. Nonprofit brands are forced to pick sides in an ever-polarized world. 

The largest drivers of polarization include: a lack of shared identity, a distrust in the government, systemic unfairness, economic pessimism, societal fears, and distrust in the media (Edelman 2023, 17). Polarization is a growing problem in our society, with 53% of respondents believing that their country is more divided now than in the past (Edelman 2023, 20). And the first driver of polarization, lack of shared identity, represents a key weakness for nonprofit brands. 

Many nonprofits seek to be a unifying force, one that helps to reinstate shared identity among groups of people. But it seems that the current polarized state of the world is not allowing this to be the case. Nonprofits are instead being forced to pick sides and they are being punished for this in public perception.

 While 46% of Edelman respondents said that nonprofit leaders are a unifying force in society that brings people together, 29% of respondents indicated that nonprofit leaders are actually a dividing source, one that exploits and intensifies people’s differences, pulling them apart (Edelman 2023, 21). It seems that with the current state of polarization, working on and speaking out about certain politicized topics such as women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, racism, and more, while incredibly important, represent a bit of a lose-lose situation for nonprofit brands. 

Without taking a strong stance, nonprofit brands can lose trust and support from members of the public who are committed to these issues. And their brand, who they are in the eyes of the public, gets hazy and unclear. But in taking a strong stance that can be politicized, nonprofits lose the ability to bring more people into the fold, to unify, which is absolutely necessary for their causes (and some might even lose important funding). As people drift further apart, nonprofits straddle a larger gulf—one that will prove difficult to bridge after losing more public trust. 

Opportunities for Nonprofit Brands: 

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Report spotlights a significant trust divide caused by income inequality, and these findings underscore the urgency for nonprofit brands to help restore faith in institutions. With election season around the corner, and all of the heightened political engagement that coincides, nonprofits have the opportunity to create stronger ties to their audience. With our spot at the perceived ethical top, nonprofits have a unique opportunity to communicate their impact effectively, strengthen their feedback loop, and emphasize their commitment to long-term solutions. Capitalizing on these opportunities could make or break the public reputation of nonprofits in the years to come. 

1. Nonprofit brands can bridge the trust gap between people and institutions. 

Income inequality has created a mass-class divide—and with inequality, we get two rupturing trust realities. Right now, the top 25% of earners in the US give institutions a 63-point trust score, while the lowest 25% give our institutions a measly 40 points (Edelman 2023, 12). 

Taken in context, that 23-point gap is a gulf: The US has the second highest income-based trust inequality in the world (Edelman 2023, 12). That polarization is felt more starkly amongst Republicans in the US, with 50% of Republicans saying that our country is entrenched in divisions compared to Democrats’ 33% (Edelman 2023, 18). Then, when the chips are down, among those who feel polarized, their employer is the most trusted institution (Edelman 2023, 27).  

We can draw some connections: Poverty breeds distrust in institutions and trust polarization. When the systems and institutions—government, nonprofits, media—designed to elevate your circumstances fail you, who do you trust? You put your employer, the entity that gives you the money to pay your bills, at the top. You don’t bite the hand that feeds. But where’s the opportunity here? Well, nonprofits are also the hand that feeds. Nonprofits work to address systemic injustices, poverty, healthcare gaps, and more. We have the opportunity to better demonstrate that critical work, better explain and expand resources, and make nonprofit care more accessible. 

Nonprofits can build on their standing as the most ethical and one of the most competent sectors to bridge the trust gap to improve people’s circumstances. Building on practices like financial transparency and accountability, can win minds. But to win hearts, nonprofit brands can lean into some of other sector-specific strengths. For example, people believe that in order for a business to be trustworthy and non-politically motivated, it should be a trustworthy information source, base actions on science, and act on the same values over time. Nonprofits that abide by these trustworthy practices can strengthen trust in their brands. 

The stakes are high: If we succeed, nonprofits can continue their work. If we fail, we lose brand trust, and subsequently, the trust of the people who need our help most. To show people that we have the empathy and the competency to make a tangible difference in their lives. Some resources for demonstrating our impact to build trust are:

2. Nonprofits can create a stronger feedback loop.

When you order something on Amazon, you pay, and in return, you have a package  in your hands in two business days. When you give to a nonprofit, what do you get in return?  

Right now, nonprofit brands have an incredible opportunity to create a stronger, more tangible feedback loop between donors, members, volunteers, and community members to demonstrate their impact. Volunteering is down, and the days of dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army bin are over. But election season—and the upswing in political and social engagement that comes with it—is right around the corner. People will want to know that the resources they spend for your cause are put to good use, and we can accomplish that with a stronger feedback loop. 

Strengthening the feedback loop takes several shapes for a nonprofit brand: messaging, marketing, communications, and community. In terms of messaging, consider putting your nonprofit audience at the center of your story—framing them, and not your nonprofit, as the catalysts in your theory of change. The main reasons people engage with nonprofits are personal. In your branding and in your marketing, a stronger feedback loop looks like more personalized content, consistency, and proof of process. Transparency is king here. Our communications also have to uphold our high standards—surveyed respondents say they might stop donating to an organization because of poor, vague, dull, or irrelevant content. And we should make people feel connected almost instantly to a broader community of people who care about the same cause (check out some resources on this). 

To create a stronger feedback loop and connection with our audiences, we have to show, not just tell, people where their money and time is going. We don’t have the luxury of mailing everyday consumer products, but when nonprofit brands strengthen the connection between a brand and its audience, we can clearly deliver meaning, impact, self-actualization, and community to our audiences. 

3. Nonprofits can emphasize that we’ve got our sights set on the long-term. 

Systemic unfairness is seen as one of the top three drivers of polarization (Edelman 2023, 17). Younger voices want systemic, long-term solutions—not quick fixes. With issues like climate change and systemic racism dominating the top concerns of Gen Z, younger people are interested in building a better future, brick by brick. “They are an activist generation … They take strong positions and expect others, including brands, to do the same.” They’re driving the change they want to see in the world. 

Younger generations aren’t interested in quick fixes, or maybe they understand that bandaids won’t solve something like ocean warming. They’re interested in long-term thinking (see the rise of movements like longtermism) and systemic solutions. 

The opportunity here for nonprofit brands might be obvious, but it’s worth stating: When relevant, nonprofits brands can lean into their long-term goals and aspirations to address societal issues. When we can communicate that and bring the next generation into the fold, we can begin to address and change the systems that perpetuate violence, poverty, racism, and environmental havoc. 

Threats for Nonprofit Brands: 

The shifts we’re seeing from even just from 2022 to 2023 don’t bode well for nonprofits. That is, they don’t bode well if we don’t react. We’re seeing a new default in institutional mistrust and ever-growing polarization. Plus, we’re seeing a trust microscope placed on every public entity and everyone. But, these threats are important to know as you leverage current strengths and future opportunities to overcome them. 

1. A new norm: Institutions are untrustworthy until proven trustworthy. 

The clearest threat to nonprofits—and maybe the most corrosive to our social fabric—is the new perception default: Institutions are untrustworthy until proven trustworthy. In the 2022 Edelman Report, 59% of people surveyed across 24 countries said their tendency is to distrust until they see evidence that something is trustworthy (Edelman 2022, 19). 

Goodbye to the benefit of the doubt. Alternative media ecosystems, fake news, and economic instability further divide us from trusting important new information and viewpoints. Imagine if we had a justice system based on this same principle—guilty until proven innocent. Distrust as the default can crumble small communities all the way up to democracies and global systems. It is central to the us vs, them mentality, which silos us off from other people we deem as different from us. 

To overcome the threat of making mistrust the default, nonprofits can lean even harder into brand transparency and honesty. Make it clear to the public who your brand is and what you do (and how you spend their donation dollars). The feedback loop that results will quell people’s fears about you. After all, the report asked people if their tendency was to mistrust until they saw evidence otherwise. So show them the necessary evidence otherwise with your brand, build trust in your nonprofit organization while elevating trust in the nonprofit sector.  

2. Nonprofits must bridge an ever-widening polarization gap. 

While the current state of polarization demonstrates a weakness for nonprofits right now (see above), worsening polarization year over year suggests an even graver threat. Polarization and distrust exist hand-in-hand, or as the Edelman report puts it they are “both cause and consequence.” 

Among respondents who indicated that they believe their country is currently polarized with entrenched divisions, their distrust in nonprofits exceeded respondents who found their countries more united, or at least divided but not entrenched (Edelman 2023 report page 19). In other words, there’s a direct correlation between someone’s negative outlook on the state of affairs and their likelihood to trust that things will improve—or that nonprofits can help. Not only is the polarization gap growing, but with the continued growing distrust of the government and the media, nonprofits could be left to pick up the slack. 

While this is an opportunity for nonprofits, it’s of course also a threat. This is a time to lean heavily into credible and science-backed information, and show that improvements your nonprofit is making in the lives of your audiences will have positive impacts for everybody. Think about ways to bring more people into the fold while avoiding immobilizing or politicized language. Use framing to your advantage, and be nimble to change how you’re communicating based on how people react. 

3. Nonprofits can’t act fast under a trust microscope. 

People want the brands they align with to take public stances on their beliefs. This is of course risky business in a polarized society. And since nonprofits are under a trust microscope, in order to express beliefs effectively, organizations must devote lots of time and intentionality to their communications. This poses a threat moving forward because it stymies a nonprofit’s ability to respond to future crises quickly and efficiently. 

Nonprofit brands often need to act fast—disasters don’t share deadlines. When an extreme weather event, a humanitarian crisis, or a political rupture unfold, we have to act fast to better serve our communities and stakeholders. While transparency and intentionality are of course important, these things take time and time is of the essence when responding to a crisis. If nonprofits get caught in the weeds of exactly what their communications will look like at the moment of necessity, they might miss the opportunity to help when their constituents need them most. 

The public isn’t the only blocker, though. Many large organizations face internal struggles to address more divisive issues. When a nonprofit has an older, more conservative funding source or leadership, giving way to progressive framing can prove difficult.  With every step hyper-analyzed by the public and maybe also by leadership, some NGOs might be frozen in place with a great deal of mixed opinions on how to move forward. If your brand is not fully fleshed out or communicated to your staff or your public, people cannot give your communications the benefit of the doubt. They don’t have the necessary context or perception of your brand to see where you are coming from. 

No organization is perfect and no communication strategy is fool-proof. We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. Crisis communications exist for a reason and nonprofits are in no short supply of thoughtful, strong communicators. Trust them, focus on internal organization alignment by having discussions internally, and once again listen to feedback to overcome bumps in the road as they arise. 

Closing thoughts:

In a world where trust is scarce and polarization runs deep, nonprofit brands have the opportunity to bridge societal gaps and help restore faith in institutions. The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer Report highlights both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the nonprofit sector. Sure, nonprofits are playing trust catch up against businesses, but nonprofit brands possess unique strengths that can pave the way for progress. With growing interest in social impact, a reputation for ethical leadership, and the building blocks of public trust, can build bridges and unite our polarized populace toward our bottom line: progress. 

About the Authors

MK Moore

MK Moore

MK is our Lead Content Marketer dedicated to elevating Constructive’s brand as well as the brands of our partners with thoughtful, strategic content. She’s practiced her storytelling in everything from political canvassing to traditional copy-editing. MK crafts content designed to engage and inform an audience in the interest of inspiring positive change. She holds a B.A. in English and Media Studies from Boston University. As a student, MK played varsity basketball, wrote for her student newspaper, and volunteered for various political campaigns. Prior to joining Constructive, MK spent two years as a Content Creator for an environmental nonprofit and worked as the Marketing Manager for a health technology startup. Outside of work, you can find MK baking, reading, or going for runs along the Charles River.

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Kaylee Gardner

Kaylee Gardner

Kaylee is Constructive’s Digital Strategist, specializing in combining quantitative and qualitative research to drive audience engagement and sustain brand relationships that create positive change. She combines analytical and creative thinking to identify trends and patterns—translating what the research can tell us to deepen understanding of how social impact brands can connect with the needs and motivations of their audiences. Kaylee is a graduate from Stevens Institute where she received a B.S. in Business and Technology with concentrations in Marketing and Information Systems, and then an M.B.A. in Business Intelligence and Analytics. As a student she dedicated herself to volunteer work—serving for four years on a student advisory board focusing on school and student experience improvement, curriculum changes, and bringing administrative attention to student concerns. Outside of work she can be found taking dance classes, working on crochet projects, reading, or drinking iced coffee year round.

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