Trust is the air that we breathe


Deirdre Treacy


Having spent the past two years delving into the nuances of trust in non-profit-donor relationships as a part of my PhD journey with Technical University Dublin and Dublin Simon Community, I welcomed the opportunity to come out of the books and to lean back into practice at this year’s Philea Forum.

At the closing plenary, there was an insight shared by António Feijó, President of the Board of Trustees at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, that really struck a chord with me. As he reflected on increased political polarisation, he noted:

“The conversation is broken, there’s a breakdown in contact. What we need for the conversation to proceed is trust. Trust is the air we breathe.”

In the same way that air sustains life, trust sustains the ecosystem of philanthropy. Individual donors and foundations place their trust in non-profits to use contributions effectively and ethically and to drive the positive change they want to realise. Similarly, non-profits at the coalface rely on trusting internal relationships to be resilient in the face of rising societal challenges. For individuals in society, we also place our trust in institutions as well as in the care and support provided by non-profits, believing that they have good intentions and that they will improve our lives.

Worryingly, public trust in our institutions is eroding across Europe, and how this manifests in society was explored exceptionally well at the conference. The sessions I attended touched on various subthemes, including rising polarisation, a decline in youth participation in democracy, distrust in media, and climate-related crises. If “trust is the air that we breathe,” these sessions underscored that there seems to be a ‘thinning of the air,’ and society is struggling to breathe.

While in academia we often isolate relationships and analyse trust therein, being mindful that trusting relationships are embedded in complex social environments is useful.

Trust flows in multiple directions and between different kinds of entities, all in a delicate ecosphere underpinned by nuanced trust types. Just as in the individual donor-non-profit relationship, there are many porous levels at play: generalised trust, institutional trust, sectoral trust, and organisational trust. Each plays an important role in fostering trusting behaviour as a whole.

As the conference concluded, I reflected on the powerful role philanthropy has in bringing diverse stakeholders together to learn from each other as we endeavour to tackle the lofty goal of trust restoration.

Grassroots non-profit participants such as ECOLISE and APROPOS Group reminded me that dynamic organisations like these are vital in building and restoring generalised and institutional trust at the societal level. Both organisations create space for difficult, authentic conversation and strengthen community participation.

At the sector level, other participant non-profits like the Solutions Journalism Network can be powerful forces in supporting the wider philanthropic sector to communicate solutions and impact, signalling the sector’s trustworthiness characteristics (our ability, benevolence, and integrity). But, as well as the language and visuals of our message, we also need to reflect upon the communication tools we use to build trust.

Finally, at the organisational level, the topical call for foundations to embrace Trust-Based Philanthropic practice was also a lively discussion during coffee-break conversations. Trust begins within, so a deep understanding of the dynamics underpinning both intra-organisational and inter-organisational trust between foundations and their non-profit partners is critical. Undertaking a PhD can be a lonely road, but these conversations have given me renewed energy. Academic research investigating the dynamics of trust in donor-non-profit relationships is important and needed.

Restoring trust is indeed a lofty goal, but it’s within our collective reach. At the closing plenary, I couldn’t help but feel that many of the tools we need to ensure trust flows freely and robustly across society were in the room. Let’s see now if we can indeed go forward together and ‘walk the talk,’ a challenge put to us in the opening plenary discussion.

Deirdre Treacy, PhD Researcher, Technological University Dublin

Tagged in: PhileaForum2024

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