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April 4, 2012

High public trust in NGOs, but is it built on shaky foundations?

Over many years, GlobeScan’s regular tracking of global publics’ trust in different types of institutions has shown that NGOs are clearly the most trusted. Compared to global and national businesses, governments, and the media, trust in NGOs is significantly higher and continues to rise slowly.

To further investigate why this high level of trust exists, we asked people to say what NGOs had done recently to earn their trust. The word cloud derived from their responses starkly illustrates two key findings. The first is the prominence of “help” (and to a lesser extent "support") along with two key recipients of that help, “people” and “environment.” This highlights how important tangible outcomes are to people’s willingness to see NGOs as trustworthy. It also adds weight to what GlobeScan found in its global public polling in 2008—that the consensus of public support for NGOs’ role in aid and assistance work is greater than for their political campaigning and advocacy.

Paradoxically, the other very frequent response is “nothing.” This raises an important question of whether the high level of trust in NGOs we witness is, at least in part, based on blind faith that NGOs can be trusted, simply because of what they represent. Indeed in recent research conducted in the US and UK, we found few people admit to knowing much about how non-profits and charities operate, despite most people believing they are the most effective change-makers.

NGOs should be wary of this potentially shaky foundation of public trust. Both historical and recent examples of scandals and controversies engulfing NGOs demonstrate how quickly trust can be wiped away, especially in the age of social media.

GlobeScan Foundation

The GlobeScan Foundation is dedicated to helping achieve a more sustainable and just world for all. To accomplish this we develop and apply a range of social science tools to give voice to global publics, help unlock collaboration and accelerate progress. Learn more here