This is Part 2 of a series on building trust: “No Trust, No Relationship, No Money.”

“The fish stinks from the head.”

This ancient proverb speaks to the role of leadership in creating a dysfunctional and untrustworthy organization. If the employee is not trustworthy, it is because the manager or leader has failed to build trust.

Each of us as employees and members of society have a little “stink” in us – that is the human condition. But enlightened people own their tendency to manipulate and misrepresent, get to the root of why they do it, and then try to do something about it.

I didn’t learn this lesson until mid-career after I had made a ton of relational mistakes, not only in my personal life but also in my business life. While it’s so obvious to me now, back then I didn’t realize that everyone was watching how I behaved and then governing their behavior by the examples I set. Even my kids were doing it.

People who have integrated this thinking into their lives lead some of the most successful companies around the world. They know that if a customer is going to trust their company, they themselves need to be trustworthy. So they work at building trust. This same dynamic applies to non-profits. Donors will trust the trustworthy non-profit. And by “trustworthy” I mean that the daily practice of the leaders in the non-profit is one that builds trust.

Likewise, when leadership does not inspire trust, this attitude will become part of the organization’s culture. Here are some signs that a non-profit is untrustworthy:

  1. Facts are manipulated.

    There is a great deal of energy expended to gain advantage in the public eye, to watchdog agencies, to employees, and to donors. This is all done with a stated rationale that it will “help the cause.” Truth telling is difficult to find in an organization like this. There is a lot of fact manipulation as relates overhead ratios. Jeff and I have written quite a bit about this.

  2. Lack of consistency in application of policy.

    A certain “rule” is touted as “how we do things” but is changed to assist a friend of the CEO or the Board Chair or someone else in power get out of a bad situation they face. Or a designated donation is accepted for a non-budgeted, non-priority item because a powerful donor insists on doing the work. Or a CEO spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a useless remodel of the offices while cutting pay to lower-level employees due to “budget constraints.” You know the routine.

  3. Withholding information.

    People who need key information to operate effectively are not given access to this information, but still expected to perform. There is a culture of secrecy and “need-to-know.”

  4. Philosophical or religious bias.

    A great deal of philosophical or religious values are lifted up as guiding principles, especially related to the just and fair treatment of people, but they are violated every day in practice. I’ve seen so much of this it makes me sick – a leader waxing eloquent about how we “must respect and care for our good employees” and then turns around and hurts them.

  5. The organization does not tolerate mistakes.

    We all know that mistakes are the true path to success. Every leader, every manager, every person that has tried anything knows that nothing is accomplished in life without multiple attempts to figure out the best path. The ratio of mistakes to final success is enormous. The ratio of new product ideas to final launch of a new product is about 1200:1. It takes 1200 “failures” to get to success. But, sadly, in many non-profits, the leaders and managers either do not know this or do not allow it. So, employees are punished for mistakes. There is a culture of fear in the organization.

  6. There is a cost versus opportunity orientation – it is about protection, not possibility.

    I know of one non-profit leader who’s the head of a $6 million dollar organization. This person eliminated one copy machine in order to save money. One. Not several. Just one. And they did it in a department that heavily uses copy machines. This is the same person who will spend over $300,000 on a pet project which has very little to do with advancing their cause. This is also the same person who fills their employees with fear on spending money and enjoys a reputation of being a “cost-cutter.” But as you look at this person’s track record, they have not accomplished anything of significance in their career. They’ve simply cut, cut, cut, everywhere they go. Contrast this to a colleague of theirs, who runs the same organization in another state. Theirs has doubled in size, offered many more programs, and has actually done a lot of good in building trust in the organization and helping people.

  7. New ideas and new initiatives are not encouraged.

    Similar to #6 above, very little that is new or innovative percolates up. There is an orientation to maintain the status quo.

  8. Bureaucracy is everywhere.

    This is where there is a 400-page employee handbook, a finance director who drives everything even though it is none of her business, a legal department that operates with so much fear and process that you can’t get anything done – everything is about rules and risks rather than possibility and progress.

  9. High employee turnover.

    This is a clear sign that an organization is untrustworthy. Employees, sensing the incongruity and lack of integrity, flee right out the front door.

When you look at this list and contemplate the effect this kind of environment has on an employee, it is truly depressing. I felt down when I finished writing it. And the sad thing is that there are way too many organizations out there that are just like this.

What is the common denominator in an organization like this? It is fear and control. The leader and the string of managers below him or her operates out of fear. They then attempt to control everything and everyone to try to reduce the fear they feel.

I think you can see how an organization like this will not engender trust with its donors. It just will not happen. The stink at the top will ooze through the organization out into the marketplace.

How can you improve this situation? Let me offer a few suggestions:

  1. First, purpose to be a person of integrity and congruity. This is back to the self-trust topic I addressed in my last blog. If you have not read it, go back and take a look. Often, there is not too much you can do to affect upstream, but you can do something about yourself. Start there.
  2. Sponsor trust building in your sphere of influence. Spread the word around your department and with your manager. Encourage your manager to talk about this within their sphere of influence. Put it all in the context of being a better organization for “ourselves and our donors.” You might hand out this series on trust to others to get them reading and talking about it. Just increasing awareness will start to cause change.
  3. Look for ways to build trust with donors. This may be about how you report back to them, how your treat them, or what information you choose to share with them.
  4. When a situation comes up and your donor’s trust is on the line, be bold in building trust. This will take a little courage on your part, but you can do it. If someone is trying to modify the truth, speak up. But do it gently and with kindness. Talk constantly about how building trust and being open with your donors will help the organization’s economy. Money talks. So, bringing this point up will get people’s attention.
  5. If it becomes too much to bear and things aren’t changing, then leave the organization. I know that sounds stark. But a good person like you has no business being in an organization like this.

Trust, once broken, is extremely difficult to repair. Take the time understand red flags and, wherever it’s within your power, make efforts to create a culture of trust.

In the next post, I’ll be speaking more about building trust in your donor relationships.


This is Part 2 of the series: No Trust, No Relationship, No Money.

Read Part 1 – No Trust, No Relationship, No Money: On Self-Trust