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Reputation & NGOs Workshop: How do non-profits build reputations and signal trust?

by Deana Rohlinger

Kirsten Grønbjerg: 'Trust in Nonprofits: What Do Local Government Officials Think and Does It Matter?' (Kirsten A. Grønbjerg, Kellie McGiverin-Bohan, Lauren Dula and Angela Gallagher)

The focus of Kirsten’s presentation, based around this work in progress, was on local government officials (LGOs) who are in a strategic position to assess the performance and reputation of non-profit organizations. The central question is: do they trust non-profits to do the right thing? If they do, certain consequences are anticipated: they might rely on them to provide services without extensive monitoring or regulation, include them in collaborative activities, and refrain from imposing policies on them.

The considerable literature on trust in organizations shows it has been declining across the board. This research attempts to isolate the implications of one relationship within organizations, with key questions:

  • How much trust do LGOs have in non-profits?
  • What explains the level of trust?
  • How much is it shaped by personal experiences?

Data is drawn from a survey of Indiana government officials. Hypotheses revolve around the range of interaction; NGO types and range; knowledge of governance structures of NGOs. The final phase of the analysis will be looking at what taxes local government may impose on charity, and what part the above factors play in that. 

Evelyn Brody: 'Federation as a Reputational Mechanism: the US Law of Same-Name Nonprofit Organizations'

Evelyn Brody’s presentation examined NGOs from a legal perspective focused on the relationships among federated NGOs and their subunit chapters. She reflected on the not-always-apt laws used in relation to NGOs, derived among others from corporate law, franchise law, and the Constitution, and limited disclosure requirements. This both makes questionable legal outcomes -- e.g., when a chapter of the Girl Scouts was allowed to invoke the same rules as Dunkin' Doughnuts franchisees - and leaves a reputational risk notwithstanding a legal victory -- e.g., after the Boy Scouts of America were allowed to exclude homosexuals. In an interesting aside, Evelyn explained that, of the some 186,000 US NGOs required to file the 990 tax form, fewer than 30,000 have any members, and only about 8,000 have chapters, at odds with popular conceptions of the ubiquity of large NGOs with multiple local subunits.

Helen Stride: 'Reputation and NGOs: Developing Our Understanding of Values as Drivers of Trust and Commitment'

In this presentation, Helen Stride explored the need to leverage values to improve reputations among not-for-profits, in an environment where increases in funding, many new players, and increasing distrust, are putting reputations under pressure. But which values are important, and to whom? Research among 600 respondents from UK charities, linking trust and commitment, and recognizing the strong emotional component in shared values, found, tentatively at this stage, that “benevolence” values counted for less than moral values within the organization, and for donors, competence was judged by outcomes for beneficiaries, and qualities that act on outcomes, such as creativity.

Facilitator Comments: Deana Rohlinger

Session 1 took up the issue of how nonprofits build reputations and signal trust. The papers revealed that assessments of Nonprofit/NGO trustworthiness are complicated because they are potentially influenced by a number of factors including:

•    The structural arrangements of an organization, which includes it leadership.
•    The expressed values of the staff and the extent to which they line up with those of the organization.
•    The public relations efforts of the organization and its attentiveness to brand equity and consistency across diverse formats (e.g., traditional and social media).
•    The external assessments by politicians, beneficiaries, and the broader citizenry.
•    The broader political and economic environment which can change suddenly and fundamentally alter what groups are regarded as reputable and the criteria used in such evaluations.

Given that there is so much beyond the control of nonprofits/NGOs, how can groups signal trust? Our conversation revealed some promising insights.

•    Organizations would do well to keep the target audience in mind. A group may very well need to send different signals to different kinds of audiences in order to build a reputation as a trustworthy organization. Thus, a nonprofit/NGO would be wise to forego a “one-size-fits-all” strategy, understand that trustworthiness is an outcome of a relational process, and think through what criteria different targets use to assess organizational legitimacy.
•    Being an “old” organization does not make it a trustworthy organization. Nonprofits/NGOs must leverage their names whenever possible, but understand adaptability wins the day. For example, groups that can meaningfully insert themselves into national politics can benefit from an international reputation while showing that it is not too big or too old to take on news causes.
•    Being a “big” organization does not make it a trustworthy organization. Again, international nonprofits/NGOs may have an initial advantage over new ones since they have established some level of international credibility. However, groups that are regarded as trustworthy connect with supporters in a meaningful way on the issues the community sees as most relevant.  

Finally, I urged scholars and practitioners alike to think through their terminology carefully because some factors are more easily controlled by nonprofit/NGO than others. Organizations, for example, have a great deal of control over their brand. Groups can determine what values to highlight and connect them to a broad political project. Reputation, however, is determined relationally with different publics (politicians, beneficiaries, and supporters). This is a distinction worth remembering since slippage will only conflate these very different products and processes.