4 min Read
August 24, 2016

Four lessons in trust-building from the presidential campaign

From Benghazi and email server scandals facing the Clinton campaign to fear mongering and incessant “flip-floppery” from the Trump camp, the headlines from this election season could easily be confused with a movie trailer for a psychological thriller. We’ve heard countless stories of betrayal, deceit, and dishonesty from every direction while both candidates fight aggressively to win the trust—and support—of the American people. On November 8th we will choose between two candidates who face some of the lowest favorability scores in history to entrust with the most powerful job in the world.

Which candidate do you trust to be President of the United States? This is the central question of the campaign. Thinking about trust—both how to build it and how to break it—can also teach nonprofits a lot about building relationships with supporters.  

As a nonprofit communicator or fundraiser, you know trust is crucial. Your nonprofit’s donors must trust you to put their money to work in the way that does the most good for a cause that’s important to them. For supporters to keep giving year over year and at higher and higher amounts, that trust cannot waver. It must grow stronger. There’s a ton of research out there about the importance of trust in the nonprofit sector, including work by U.K. Professor Adrian Sargeant, who analyzes why individuals must perceive a nonprofit as trustworthy as a precursor to giving, and the need to continuously and intentionally foster trust when fundraising.

Even if you know your organization is doing great work, being seen as trustworthy by potential donors should not be considered a given. Take into account The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s 2015 research into Americans’ confidence in charities. While the study found that more than 80 percent of people said charities do a “very good” or “somewhat good” job helping people (good news!), over a third said they “had little” or “no confidence” in charities, and a third said charities do a “not too good” or “not at all good” job spending money wisely. Over 40 percent said their leaders are paid too much. Just like our presidential nominees, the nonprofit sector has a serious trust problem.

Here are four actionable lessons about building trust with donors from this election season.

Lesson #1: Be original.

Strive to use authentic, unique, and differentiating language when communicating to your donors and supporters. Remember when parts of Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention in July was clearly lifted from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention from 2008? (If you missed it you can watch a side-by-side comparison video on Youtube.) So even if the tagline or mission statement of another organization captures perfectly what you’ve long sought to express, take a cue from Melania and find another way to say it.

Lesson #2: Be transparent.

Be upfront and open about your financials, and communicate clearly and regularly about how you’re spending donor dollars. Clinton finally released her 2015 tax returns after months of deferring the request. But as of mid-August, Trump’s still refusing, and his persistent avoidance is drawing a whole lot of attention and speculation. Take the high road and keep your 990s available on your website and make sure your listings on websites like Guidestar and Charity Navigator are up to date and accurate.

Lesson #3: Be consistent.

Everyone should be given room to evolve their views, but acting on consistent values and beliefs and staying true to your mission help build trust and credibility. The “flip-floppery” of Donald Trump has been unprecedented—from his views on abortion, health care, and even his own feelings about Hillary Clinton— and it’s a daily guessing game to know where he stands on every issue. (This video sums it up brilliantly.) Don’t keep your donors guessing—even taking simple actions like using your mission statement and logo consistently will help.

Lesson #4: Make your supporters the hero.

Show your donors that your success as an organization is because of their generous contributions. We’ve learned that there’s one thing that Donald Trump cares most about: Donald Trump. His ego-driven communications mean he never stops talking about his own self-proclaimed success. But where are the American people in his story? Put this lesson into practice by thinking about the role of the donor in your fundraising communications. Using more “you” and less “we” in your writing ensures you’re giving donors the credit for results, which can give them that warm glowing feeling. This helps them feel like their contributions matter, building trust and inspiring them to give again. Try Tom Ahern’s “You test” on a draft of your next fundraising letter.

How is your nonprofit doing with building trust with donors? If you’re not sure—or if you want to test your assumptions—check out Big Duck’s Brandraising Benchmark, a new research tool we’re offering that can help your nonprofit measure brand awareness, including whether or not Americans find you trustworthy. (We’ve even got one that will measure what politically progressive Americans think about your organization.)

See you at the voting booth!


Ally Dommu

Ally Dommu is the Director of Service Development, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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