I was shocked when I saw the results of the recent Ipsos MRBI Trust Barometer which showed a very low level of trust in Charity CEOs. I was not expecting them to be so low on the scale.
I began to wonder how CEOs might respond to these findings in a way the builds, rather than further diminishes trust in CEOs?
Let me declare my conflict of interest before I go any further – I once was a Charity CEO. And in my current work, many of my clients are Charity CEOs.
My immediate reaction was twofold a) to feel empathy – it is not easy to hear that you are not trusted; b) I wanted to rush to their defence by trying to find a satisfactory explanation and come up with quick solutions which would solve the problem.
This was my initial reaction. Then I became curious and questions began to form.
Why do the public have such low levels of trust in the role of CEO? I suspect that the public trust the Charity CEO that they know personally.
Is it something to do with a growing distrust in business CEOs more generally, who are often seen as self-serving, over paid, and with a sense of privilege and entitlement?
The public continue to trust charities. Their huge support, especially in the last year, is evidence of this. How do we reconcile this level of support with low levels of trust in the CEOs?
CEO salary levels have become public knowledge in the recent past, the inference often being that they are payed too much. Do the public have expectations that CEOs will be voluntary, or only paid a modest sum? And when they read about salaries it undermines their trust?
In what ways do charities – CEOs, Boards, other staff and volunteer contribute to this situation? No one, or very few people, would set out to deliberately undermine trust, but sometimes well intentioned actions, or something being prioritised over something else, has the unintended consequence of undermining another’s trust.
Engaging with the findings in an open, curious, honest way may help in some small way to restore trust. For example:
Engage with the findings in a way that does not dispute them or explain them away. This may come across as being defensive and will further undermine trust. These findings are not the full story but they are part of it.
Give an account of what it is like to be a CEO and to feel you are not trusted. You don’t need to be defensive, you are not a victim. But you are a human being with experiences and feelings. Be prepared to share the impact it has on you. Be prepared to be open, honest, and vulnerable. Put a human face to this statistic.
Perhaps it’s time for the not-for-profit sector to establish a Trust Project, to explore trust in the sector and its CEOs. It would bring together a broad range of stakeholders to explore the issues, hear the different perspectives, make sense of what is going on, and suggest ways forward. Engaging multiple stakeholders is key to this, this is not just a problem for the sector to solve. Perhaps something along the lines modelled by the Citizens Assembly?
I heard it said once that 'Trust arrives on foot, but leaves on horseback'. Apparently its a Swedish proverb.