The impact ecosystem is replete with well-intentioned individuals striving to make the world a better place. Yet, building trust between social impact organizations, and among the individuals within them, does not always come easy.

Understanding the dynamics at play in building a culture of trust, and the barriers that often stand in the way, is part of what sets effective organizations (and leaders) apart from those that are not. And like anything else, trust building must be intentional.

At we bring together peer-networks within the impact ecosystem to coordinate, collaborate, and create collective impact — and part of this work involves helping organizations learn how to build a culture of trust to further their impact. Earlier this year we co-hosted a conversational session at the Skoll World Forum that brought together impact leaders from around the globe to explore this topic; below are some of the shared learnings that were discussed.

Design for Trust

Building trust to advance collective impact is an art, yet there are certain steps that organizations and individuals can take early on in their relationships with strategic partners to produce that desired result.

During our session at the Forum, Almaz Negash, Founder of African Diaspora Network, offered this insight: breaking bread, or rather, engaging with partners on a personal level, is a great tool for creating trust. Doing so creates the space for sharing stories that help people identify shared interests and emotional connections.

Another way to design for trust in your community is to pay it forward. Randall Kempner, Executive Director of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs, shared during the session that one way he does this is by holding “office hours” once a month where he brings together diverse people who have made information requests; rather than spend 10 hours hosting individual meetings on different topics, he creates a communal space for shared learning. Not only does this save time, but it also creates opportunities to cross-pollinate between people in his community.

Winthrop Carty, Executive Director of the Melton Foundation, added that it’s important to view trust as an iterative design process. He urged that when building trust with employees, partners, or constituents, organizations must take steps so that people feel heard. If individuals provide feedback on any given issue, for example, do something about it. If no action is taken, let people know why.

Communicate Early and Often

One of the most effective ways to build trust with any team is through authentic communication. Neera Nundy, Managing Partner of Dasra, mentioned during the session that as a leader, saying “I don’t know” may be one of the scariest things to do, but it is one of the most necessary if you want your team to trust you.

Topher Wilkins, CEO of Opportunity Collaboration, added that face-to-face meetings are imperative and cannot be replaced by technology, as communicating in person provides an opportunity for deep listening and reflecting back what you’re hearing — it’s an investment you have to make in your team and your organization.

With open communication also comes the need for transparency. Jim Fruchterman, CEO of Benetech, mentioned during the session that transparency doesn’t work when you just make everything available – transparency is about making information digestible and interpreting what people need to know. For example, rather than simply making Board of Director meeting minutes available to your team to inform them about organizational updates, support your team by sharing selected information that is most relevant to their work.

Above all, session participants shared that self-awareness is the most important communications attribute. As a leader, you have to know when and how to share your fears, be vulnerable with your language, and take action when you have valuable information.

Lead By Example

Another insight that came out of the Forum’s session is the need for leaders to live with integrity and lead by example through their actions.

Sometimes part of that involves leading with transparency so that there are no surprises, since surprises can disturb any partnership. Therefore, it’s imperative to communicate information that will impact a partnership early on in your communications. Keno Sadler, VP of Programs at Echoing Green, advised that when starting a partnership, it can help to clarify how partners will respond to surprises. In other words, rather than allow a surprise to surface, be proactive and work on issues as a process.

Along these lines, another participant mentioned that it often helps to conduct surveys (with both quantitative and qualitative questions) at different intervals of a partnership’s timeline to give partners the space to provide feedback that can improve the relationship, and avoid unforeseen surprises.

The ability to cultivate trust through intentional behavior is one of the areas that Adam Waytz, Associate Professor of Management and Organization at the Kellogg School of Management, explores as part of The Trust Project, an initiative of Northwestern University to advance the study and management of trust in business and society. During the session Waytz cited one of his colleagues’ work, which contends that trust is built with the following three components: competence, honesty, and benevolence.

Ultimately, you must lead with trust if you want others to trust you. I hope these shared learnings help your organization carve a path toward building a culture of trust with your partners.


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