Blog / Grantmakers & Donors

Rebuilding Trust in Civil Society Means Rebuilding Trust in Each Other

by Dan Cardinali
Rebuilding Trust in Civil Society Means Rebuilding Trust in Each Other

In speaking about national renewal, Independent Sector’s founder, John W. Gardner, said, “Because their work is local — and we are very much hooked on national news — the men and women working on the most serious problems of our communities have not come to national attention.”

It’s true that much of our public discourse on nonprofits and philanthropy focuses on a national and even international giving narrative, rather than a local one. Institutional civil society — also called the nonprofit sector — has expanded tremendously over the years. Today in the United States there are 1.6 million nonprofits that employ approximately 12 million professionals, mobilize more than 63 million volunteers annually (Independent Sector, 2018), and take in $410 billion in philanthropic donations annually (Giving USA, 2018), along with hundreds of billions in government grants and contracts.

And while civil society has generally enjoyed broad popular support, recent polling by the Edelman Trust Barometer has revealed a troubling trend: Americans’ trust in civil society is waning, dropping by nine points in 2017 to just below the halfway mark — not exactly a ringing endorsement (Edelman, 2018). And because civil society at its core is built on “private actions in service of the public good” — the private actions of individual people, like you and me, taken on behalf of us — that means we’re losing faith in each other.

So I ask: Is it possible that the “institutionalization” of the nonprofit sector has become so unwieldy that we are unintentionally impeding the private efforts that can lead to community-centered problem solving? Could this oversight of the value of community-led actions be a contributor to the decline of trust in civil society? And if so, how do we reconnect with the ideal of private action and begin to restore the all-important bond of trust?

“[H]ow do we reconnect with the ideal of private action and begin to restore the all-important bond of trust?”

For the last two years, Independent Sector (IS) has been about the hard work of transforming our organization into one that places the giving community — civil society itself — in the best possible position to successfully take on the challenges of the 21st century. Continuing our founding roles as a community builder and policy leader, we also are focused on better engaging with and enabling sector organizations to respond to challenges and opportunities, increase their effectiveness, and fulfill their missions.

We invite everyone in the giving space to join us November 14–16, 2018 in Los Angeles for Upswell, the cornerstone of our new engagement strategy. Upswell replaces IS’s traditional annual conference with year-round engagement of the people and ideas of the social good community to achieve broader impact. Our inaugural gathering of purpose-driven professionals in November in Los Angeles reflects the wisdom of a diverse set of changemakers and community leaders who gathered earlier this year in small labs in Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. We talked less, listened more, and learned a lot — about local challenges, incremental wins, and insightful lessons that may have implications for broader success in our community at large.

There’s no denying it: the challenges confronting our nation are formidable. Deep political divides, racial and cultural polarization, changing concepts of community, widening income and wealth inequality, to name just a few. Addressing these complex and often competing forces is daunting as well, requiring well-defined strategies and smartly executed solutions on behalf of the common good. Yet, despite the challenges that we have faced over the years, civil society — organizations and private citizens — has always found a way to work collectively to respond to societal concerns.

Upswell is an opportunity for us to remember that civil society began with citizens volunteering in communities. We would be wise to keep that front of mind as we work to repair faith in civil society and the ties that bind us.

Changing our nation and the world can start with one private action in a community. By working with others to make our own corners of the world better, we might just find ourselves restoring trust in each other, and civil society, in the process.

Independent Sector is the only national membership organization that brings together a diverse set of nonprofits, foundations, and corporations to advance the common good.


Edelman. (2018). 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report. Retrieved from

Giving USA. (2018, June 13). Giving USA 2018. Retrieved from

Independent Sector. (2018). The Charitable Sector. Retrieved from Independent Sector: