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How nonprofits are earning back trust during COVID-19 crisis

Embezzlement crimes. Transparency issues. Lavish spending.

These are the stories the public notices when charities are in the news. After all, people love a good scandal.

It’s no wonder, then, that nonprofit organizations have a trust problem.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Here’s proof: In January, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that only 50% of respondents in the U.S. trusted nonprofit organizations. That marked a 2-point decline from the previous year, dropping NPOs below for-profit companies for the first time in the report’s 20-year history.


Let that sink in for a moment.

People trust businesses – whose primary goal is to make money – more than they believe in organizations whose missions are to make the world more humane, just and compassionate.

This is bad news. It hurts fundraising, which in turn impacts the mission. Ultimately, that means less help for those who need it.

So, what can the nonprofit community do to repair this damage? Exactly what they’ve been doing for weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brands and people earn and maintain trust simply by doing what they say they are going to do. And this pandemic has been shining a spotlight on nonprofits earning trust by fulfilling their missions.

NPOs have answered the call with extraordinary grace during a time of difficulty. Food banks, rescue missions, hospitals and many more nonprofits have been on the front lines of this crisis in highly visible and urgently needed ways.

Both the news media and the general public have taken notice.

Donors across the globe have expressed their appreciation for nonprofits through a level of generosity that has been truly inspirational.

So many organizations have seen record-breaking giving throughout March and April. And we started May with another impressive wave of philanthropy on Giving Tuesday Now, smashing through established goals and bringing additional hope to the sector.

On May 5, Edelman released an updated Trust Barometer that addressed the changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Nonprofits climbed 6 points, to a 56% trust rating, while for-profit companies were largely seen as not rising to the challenge at hand.


It’s quite a remarkable turnaround from January.

But NPOs shouldn’t have to ride the wave of a crisis to generate positive publicity and hence increased trust. Elevating trust should be an everyday priority for every nonprofit.

After all, this crisis will pass. The TV cameras will be turned off, and the reporters will move on to tell other stories that aren’t yours.

While I offer kudos to nonprofits who have stepped up during this pandemic and are rightly earning high praise and elevated trust for their great work, the real question is this: How do you keep trust elevated in ordinary times?

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Stay squeaky clean. Adhere to the strictest ethical guidelines. Stay compliant with, and receive endorsement of, the Better Business Bureau and other watchdog agencies. As Warren Buffet investment partner Charlie Munger has noted, it’s easier to avoid stupidity than attain brilliance. So, don’t do anything stupid.
  • Develop lasting relationships with media outlets and give them great things to write about. Keep pitching fascinating stories and strengthen the connections you’ve built during this crisis.
  • Keep telling your story to donors, too. Talk about the need and ask for their support but celebrate success stories as well. People are passionate about the causes they support. They want to feel good about their philanthropy, so connect their gifts directly to the impact they’re making.

Building trust seems simple – just do what you say you’re going to do – but it requires time, commitment and execution. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and nonprofits will need to keep a strong bond with their supporters through the expected economic downturn.

As we’ve seen in recent months, it’s certainly worth the effort.


How to handle fundraising during the pandemic

A record-breaking response on Giving Tuesday Now

Preparing for an economic downturn

FAQ: Digital fundraising during COVID-19

COVID-19 Fundraising + Marketing Resources


Tim Kersten

Widely regarded as one of the nation’s top direct response fundraising, strategic and creative talents, Tim Kersten brings more than 40 years of experience to his role as Chairman of RKD Group. Prior to joining RKD, he served as Chief Creative Officer and Executive Creative Director at two national advertising agencies and ran his own successful direct response fundraising consultancy for nearly 25 years.

Some of the nation’s largest and most respected nonprofit organizations that have benefited from Tim’s insightful and persuasive communication strategies include the Smithsonian Institution, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, National Park Foundation, Covenant House, and dozens of others. Tim’s work has been recognized by his receipt of four Direct Marketing Association Echo Awards (gold, leader and two silver from 1986 to 2010) and a prestigious International Caples Award (2010).

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