The true value of trust

Why charities have a tortured relationship with trust

As a sector, we obsess over public trust, or the lack of it, and for good reason. We need the public to trust us if we want them to support us.

We’re also desperate for more trust from funders and government agencies, to listen to our insights, and to move away from overly specified, activity-based contracts, to give us and our partners the flexibility we need to work together, learn together, and react and respond to individual needs and changing circumstances.

And beyond the sector itself, many of us are witness to the corrosive impact of a societal lack of trust in other people. From benefit fraudsters to terrorist-sympathising refugees to violent young black men; a media-fuelled combination of availability bias and confirmation bias has built an industry of mistrust around our scapegoat populations, characterising them all with the worst imaginable traits of their most extreme examples.

This mistrust industry is expensive, in more ways than one. As we spend ever more time and resource building barriers, checks and bureaucratic hurdles to prevent the “bad” 0.1% from hurting us, we make the lives of the remaining 99.9% ever more challenging, complex and demoralising.

The irony is, in the charity sector we know all of this, we see it all around us, and yet we do exactly the same within our own organisations. Our standard approach for increasing others’ trust in us, is to reduce our trust in our own people.

Whenever something goes wrong, we add more controls, more checks, more challenges, to prevent it happening again. Safeguarding is one thing, but our tendency is to do it with everything, and the older an organisation, chances are the more of its people’s time is spent following processes, protocols and procedures designed to prevent long-forgotten mistakes from ever happening again.

In many of our organisations there exists an industry of internal compliance, born from a genuine desire to reduce risk, but which in reality, serves primarily to manacle our most creative and entrepreneurial talent with the handcuffs of their most slap-dash predecessors. We bemoan our collective lack of innovation while constraining those best positioned to change the situation.

We all pay the price for misplaced mistrust, but we do have a choice – it doesn’t have to be this way.

Last year, when I was researching for my book, I looked at a range of social enterprises in the Indian healthcare market, many of whom provided free or low-cost services to poorer people, subsidised by the fees for those same services from their wealthier clients.

Interestingly, many of those organisations eschewed any processes around assessment of means, simply trusting their clients to declare their situations honestly. Indeed, several that had started doing assessments, subsequently dropped them as they found their customers were actually more likely to claim they were better off, and thus required to pay, than to claim they were poorer and should get their service for free.

The hidden impact, on speed, efficiency and on client relationships, wasn’t worth the price of mitigating the risk of the occasional rip-off. Which begs the question, what is the hidden impact of your own guidelines, processes and protocols on your own people?

Are you recruiting and developing people in whom you have confidence they will do the right thing, every time? Are you building empowerment and accountability, freedom and responsibility? Or are you building an ever more expensive compliance industry upon the assumption that your people simply can’t be trusted?

After all, how can you expect others to trust your organisation if you don’t trust those within it?

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