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Election Results Show Low Trust in Most Institutions

by Kyle Caldwell

Whom do we believe? The major take-away from last week’s election was that voters do not see the traditional institutions leading the changes they want to see. But are all institutions evaluated equally? It’s a great question to ponder as we face some critical decision points in our society. Our nation is split along many fault lines, including those of income inequality, religion, race, and sexual orientation. Many of these factors are exacerbated by geography, with significantly different experiences in our rural versus urban communities. Our national leaders are calling for unity while standing at opposite ends of a great political divide. Where do we turn with confidence to help inform our thinking and our actions?

The latest Gallup study regarding confidence in institutions offers some answers. The poll shows that the number one institution Americans invest confidence in is our military. One might expect that the number two response might be religious institutions, or our justice system, or maybe even schools, right? But no — instead, the list goes on like this: military, small business, police, and organized religion. These are immediately followed in rankings by our medical system, the Presidency, the U.S. Supreme Court, and schools. The bottom three ranked institutions, in order, are newspapers, big business, and Congress.

History tells us that these are the places that have helped create great things in our country. Our military and Congress helped to not only win the war in Europe and the Pacific in the 1940s, but also, through the Marshall Plan, helped to rebuild the economies and governments destroyed in the wake of WWII. The Civil Rights movement was propelled not just by peaceful civil disobedience, but also through a Congress that hashed out legislation to ensure the right of every American to vote.

And yet, today, we suffer some of the same challenges of unrest and inequity based on race and income. These are heightened tensions related to our voting system, widely contrasting views on our national agenda, and a higher level of negative and polarizing rhetoric in our public discourse. Where are we to turn for solutions? Is the era of institution-based problem-solving dead?


Where are we to turn for solutions? Is the era of institution-based problem-solving dead?

Unfortunately, the Gallup study completely missed an important set of institutions; there was no question about philanthropy. What is the confidence in philanthropic institutions? A different study did ask this question, and the answers may point us to a more hopeful way forward. In its “United for Charity” study, Independent Sector asked Americans about their views on the nonprofit/philanthropic sector; the results may be surprising to some, and inspirational to others. Seventy-eight percent of Americans shared that they would trust nonprofits to work with government to get things done. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said they trust nonprofits with their hard-earned dollars over other public institutions, and 70 percent of voters surveyed said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports policies that help the charitable sector become more involved in government policy-making.

This data highlights the potential of philanthropy to help rebuild confidence in our society. Philanthropy can bring communities and institutions together to find common ground on solutions.

In our politically divided country, philanthropy can help invest in issues such as developing models for educational programs that not only provide for work skills, but also imbue knowledge about civic rights, and responsibilities — something we seem to lack, given our stunningly low voter turn-out rates.

Philanthropy can invest in engaging citizens in dialogue which can lead to reform surrounding our society’s most vexing issues — economic opportunity, immigration, community development … and the list continues. Philanthropy can continue to develop a civic orientation to problem solving, which includes service in all its forms (military, public service, national service, and volunteering) charitable giving, and civic engagement.


Philanthropy can invest in engaging citizens in dialogue which can lead to reform surrounding our society’s most vexing issues…

Throughout history, we have looked to both individuals and various institutions to help our nation overcome steep challenges, heal divisions, and solve overwhelming problems. Those who serve our philanthropic community need only to look to the data and see that trust in our work calls on us to play a key role in building the future. Our “institutions” are part of the solutions that may be able to move our nation, our communities, and our people, forward.

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