In this election season, we’ve been hearing the word ‘trust’ thrown around quite a bit. We have become a society looking for leaders we can trust. So, it got me thinking about the importance of trust in the nonprofit world, and especially about the importance of how nonprofit leaders must become trusted leaders.
There are three major types of trust and all must be present if a nonprofit is going to earn the public’s trust. One type is strategic trust and that’s the belief the public has that the organization is doing the right thing and has a valid mission. The second is organizational trust, the public’s trust in the way the organization is carrying out its mission. And the third type is personal trust, involving the public’s confidence in the people leading the organization.
Trusted leaders are credible — they have the experience and communication style that leave a positive impression. Trusted leaders are reliable– they are consistent, dependable, prepared, and offer multiple solutions to complex problems. Trusted leaders are intensely personal about their work and they talk honestly about the concerns of others. Most importantly, a truly trusted leader focuses on others and is genuinely interested in what others have to say.
A good way for a nonprofit leader to build both personal and organizational trust is to show others that you understand what they need. Then, tell people what your guiding operating principles are and what lines you won’t cross. Then, explain what resources you will use to implement your organization’s mission. Stick to your principles, no matter how difficult it may get. Engage in honest two-way conversation with your staff, volunteers, those you serve, and members of the community. And, finally, you will develop long-term trust if you continually exhibit positive, consistent behaviors, even when you think no one is watching.
I asked one of our local Sonoma community leaders to comment on the importance of trust among nonprofits. Gary Nelson, founder of the Nelson Family of Companies, stated, “Trust is key in any relationship, but is critical for a leader of a not for profit entity. The executive director or board member should be as transparent and open with the public and donors as possible and develop a personal relationship with key members of the community. Establishing regular communications with a small group of influential constituents should be a part of your plan. Seek their counsel and actively listen. Then provide feedback to them so they know you value their input and insights. This trust relationship with the community is important, but just as important is the trust relationship you need to develop with your staff and other board members.”
Every single interaction a nonprofit leader has with anyone in the community has an outcome. These interactions include a short email, a planned face-to-face meeting, or a chance encounter at the local grocery store. And every outcome has an emotional impact that can be considered negative or positive. The key to becoming a trusted leader is to work hard to ensure that these outcomes are positive, as they will build the trust that others have in you.
Ways to be intentional in creating trust include the following: (1) come to a specific agreement about next steps at the end of every communication — don’t simply say I’ll get back with you; (2) enter into the commitments you make with every intention of fulfilling them and if you can’t keep your commitment, speak up immediately; (3) be as direct and as inclusive in your communications as possible; (4) address critical unresolved issues as quickly and completely as possible; (5) treat others with dignity and respect, whether you agree with them or not; (6) learn to ask for help and be ready to give help to others; and (7) be responsive–make sure you reply to your emails on a timely basis.
The most trusted nonprofit leaders can inspire others to support their organization’s mission, earn the public’s consistent loyalty, and create a culture that will promote innovative ways to serve the community’s needs.