Fourth Annual Report on Trust in Civil Society Reveals Decline in Nonprofit Trust


Independent Sector examines headwinds contributing to decline and identifies opportunities to enhance trust in current environment

Washington, Sept. 26, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) — Independent Sector today released the results of its fourth annual Trust in Civil Society report, which reveals that the decline in nonprofit trust accelerated in 2023.

Only 52% of Americans say they trust nonprofits to do what is right today, down a statistically significant 4 points from last year. Trust in philanthropy held steady at 34% during the same period, but distrust in philanthropy increased 5 points to 26%.


The 2023 Independent Sector Trust in Civil Society report, conducted in partnership with Edelman Data X Intelligence, contains exclusive research findings exploring the nuances of trust in American nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, and other institutions. It also provides insights into how nonprofits and foundations can manage and enhance trust in today’s polarized environment.

“While nonprofits remain among our country’s most trusted institutions, we see clear evidence that trust in the charitable sector is declining. This erosion of trust poses a threat that warrants our collective attention. Without trust, the challenges confronting nonprofits and philanthropy become increasingly more difficult,” said Dr. Akilah Watkins, president and CEO of Independent Sector.

“We are facing increased expectations and public perceptions that are influenced by political polarization and economic insecurity,” Dr. Watkins added. “Independent Sector is excited to expand our understanding of trust in civil society and how the nonprofit sector can strengthen our most valuable asset. Now, more than ever, it is critical for nonprofits to communicate our values, engage with our local communities, and build relationships so that all people in the United States can thrive.”

Key findings from the Trust in Civil Society report include:

  • Nonprofits remain among the most trusted institutions in America, although sector trust declined by a statistically significant 4 points in 2023 — the largest year-over-year change in trust of any institution tested.  
  • Trust in philanthropy held steady at 34% but remains much lower than trust in nonprofits at 52%. However, distrust in philanthropy increased 5 points.  
  • Expectations for the nonprofit sector continue to increase. Americans say the sector exists to serve the needy and less fortunate. Nonprofits are expected to operate in the “gaps,” places or issues where government, businesses, and other institutions are ignoring or failing to make an impact.
  • Trust correlates with personal financial health and outlook amid a cost-of-living crisis. Trust in nonprofits is 22 points higher among Americans rating their finances as excellent or good, compared to those giving ratings of poor or fair.
  • Trust is higher for small and local institutions. Americans show a strong preference for institutions that are small and locally operated; small businesses (55%) and local government (31%) are more trusted than corporations (26%) and the federal government (24%).
  • Political polarization shades perceptions of some nonprofit subsectors. While many subsectors — such as human services, health, wildlife conservation, and youth development — enjoy strong bipartisan trust, others — such as religion, civil rights, and civics — are experiencing the effects of partisan polarization.
  • Engagement with the public is more important than ever as nonprofit trust declines. Consistent with past studies, familiarity remains strongly correlated with trust, but personal engagement is critical. Those who engage regularly with nonprofit organizations report higher trust in the sector.
  • Communications that emphasize the nonprofit sector’s values move the needle. Nonprofit messaging that focuses on value statements rather than solely data points is most effective at building sector trust.

For this fourth annual report, Edelman Data X Intelligence conducted a nationally representative online survey of 3,000 U.S. adults from May 16 to June 1, 2023. The survey had a margin error of plus or minus 2%. In addition to quantitative data, for the first time, the report also includes qualitative research in the form of online discussion boards conducted with 50 participants in August 2023 to gain deeper insights into the survey findings.

To discuss the findings, Independent Sector will hold a free webinar, “Trust in Civil Society: Headwinds and Opportunities for American Nonprofits and Foundations,” on Wednesday, September 27 at 1:00 PM EDT. Speakers include Kristen Cambell, CEO of PACE; Satonya Fair, President & CEO of PEAK Grantmaking; Rev. Adam Russell Taylor, President of Sojourners; Victor Tolomeo, Research Director at Edelman Data X Intelligence; and Akilah Watkins, President & CEO of Independent Sector. Register for the webinar here.


Independent Sector is the only national membership organization that brings together a diverse community of changemakers at nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs to ensure all people in the United States thrive. Learn more at

CONTACT: Nina Ford Independent Sector 202-467-6113 [email protected] 

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