Monday, July 6, 2009

The Trust Factor

There is a crisis of trust and confidence in our the world. 

Trust in Wall Street has been shattered. Major portions of retirement accounts are gone. Investment portfolios of nonprofits have experienced staggering losses. The largest Ponzi scheme in history has been revealed. The unemployment rate continues to spiral.  

Trust in government and its officials has been diminished as the national debt rockets into the stratosphere.

Our trust is not heightened by ominous proposals which could impose new restrictions on churches and other charities. The combination of higher taxes and potentially increased restrictions on charitable deductions could be significantly burdensome to donors.

Who can we trust? The Bible tells us a lot about trust. “Put your trust in the light” John 12:36. “In God I trust; I will not be afraid” Psalm 56:4. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” Proverbs 3:5. “Whoever trusts in riches will fall” Proverbs 11:28. One thing is clear. Deciding in whom and in what we trust is very important.
Olan Hendix, ECFA’s first executive director, once wrote, “Christians are very trusting by nature—looking for the best in other Christians and Christ-centered organizations. Trust is the vital element in the very beginning of the Christian life. We believe in or trust Jesus Christ in order to become a Christian. It is trust that enables us to claim God’s promises.” The trust that is so highly emphasized in our spiritual lives must not be neglected in the life of the organizations we represent.  

Donors decide which churches and charities they can trust. In financially challenging times, donors are asking some fresh and tougher questions. How these questions are answered will impact resources available for ministry.  

Trust is enhanced when leaders do the right thing. There is generally more than one path a leader may take; more than one way to address various opportunities with which we are presented. In his book, Leading Without Power, Max DePree suggests that “trust grows when people see leaders translate their personal integrity into organizational fidelity.”  

Trust increases as churches and other charities meet their obligations. The failure to meet obligations is a poor witness—corporately or personally. The importance of meeting obligations to vendors, lenders, and staff does not diminish during tough economic times. Clear communication with vendors and financial institutions is vital if the timely payment of obligations cannot be made. Meeting our obligations starts with a clear plan to balance resources and expenses—even when hard decisions are required.  

Trust includes keeping commitments to donors. Especially when funds are tight, our word must be our bond with donors. Economic challenges are never an excuse to exercise anything but the highest integrity. The commitments we make to donors, written or verbal, explicit or implicit, must be upheld. The use of donor-restricted funds for operating purposes should rarely occur. 

  Trust in organizations requires an accountability structure. ECFA provides this accountability structure for its members. The initial membership application process is designed to demonstrate accountability, as is the annual membership renewal. ECFA’s field review program provides on-site accountability as trained reviewers look over the shoulder of its members. Our compliance process provides a communication channel for those who are concerned about Standards-related practices of members.  

Final thoughts. History suggests that during times of uncertainty, leaders communicate less to constituents with the rationale that waiting for more definitive answers will better assure people. However, waiting lowers trust levels among constituents.  

Donors are looking for trust­worthy organizations. Trust will either be enhanced or diminished during the current economic valley. It is up to each one of us as Christian leaders to take the high roads that enhance trust.