Trust is delicate; once lost it is hard to regain. It is fundamental to relationships and forms the bedrock of our society. Who do we trust? Family, friends, colleagues? But trust in institutions is declining.
Why is this? Perhaps we can point to the exponential rise in social media as one factor. We consume our news in a different way and are more likely to respond to the recommendation or opinion of a friend than we are to those of a stranger or a faceless corporate. But that’s a good thing isn’t it?
Although social media has enriched my life in many ways, I am conscious that my newsfeed has a tendency to confirm rather than challenge my existing biases. What we lose is pluralism of opinion when we surround ourselves with people like us, and amplify each other’s views in the echo chambers of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Views become more polarised and less nuanced, and opinions matter more than facts.
There is evidence of this shift in trust in many spheres. Politics is an obvious example, where election results both here and in the US suggest a move away from the status quo. Populism has re-entered the collective lexicon to represent "ordinary people" finding their political voices. It is impossible to generalise the motives for these voting behaviours, but one common symptom seems to be the decline in trust in the institution of government and those who represent us.
We have also seen the rejection of "experts" and concerns about fake news, alongside declining trust in the traditional media. The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 was "post-truth", which describes "circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief". Perhaps there is an opportunity for charities to appeal to the hearts and minds of supporters, but it is an interesting contrast with the drive towards impact measurement.
Measuring and expressing the social value of a charity’s activities is undoubtedly an important factor in engaging supporters and maintaining trust. However, a more general decline in public trust of charities is harder to rebuild. One response has been increasing regulation, whether a refocusing of the Charity Commission on traditional regulatory activities rather than support, or the introduction of the Fundraising Regulator.
Corporate behaviour is also adapting to this new world. More companies are focusing on generating shared value, not just shareholder value. This means thinking about their employees, their clients and their wider social impact when making decisions, rather than financial returns alone. This more inclusive capitalism is also gaining traction in the City, where companies continue the struggle to regain public trust after the financial crisis.
For trustees, an awareness of external perceptions and an appreciation of the importance of public trust should be encouraged. In financial management, we are spending more time with trustees considering how their assets are used and invested in ways that align with their charitable aims and values. Authenticity and consistency are key ingredients of trust and should be carefully managed.
Kate Rogers is head of policy at Cazenove Charities