Talking about trust

I was fortunate enough to hear Onora O’Neill give the keynote speech at the NCVO/VSSN Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference a few days ago. At a time when the voluntary sector is – like many other parts of our national fabric – considering aspects of transparency and accountability – Baroness O’Neill’s speech was a much-needed consideration of the ideas of trust and trustworthiness with some nuance that has been lost in our public discourse. 

What particularly struck me, however, was a framework for trustworthiness. O’Neill pointed out that some (people, organisations) want to be trusted but don’t put the work in and they don’t deserve it. She offers three building blocks for trustworthiness: you need to be 

Reliable, competent and honest

If you’re like me you’ll immediately apply these three criteria to people you know, organisations you like and don’t like, and perhaps yourself too. I like the framework very much, not just for its application to the personal or to the voluntary sector (where organisations will differ in their required mix of the blocks) but also to brands in and out of the not-for-profit world. We often talk about brands being the personification of an organisation’s promise but I think that breaking into these three attributes is really helpful, especially when thinking about which elements give competitive advantage or might need attention. Trust is context-dependent. (One of those contexts is location, which is why local organisations which we can see and whose performance against these attributes we feel we can accurately judge are better trusted than organisations that we interact with solely online.)

NCVO VSSN research conferenceUsing this framework also enables us to better decouple trustworthiness from other brand facets like tone of voice and likability. O’Neill reminded her conference crowd that transparency and accountability aren’t in themselves sufficient for trustworthiness to be properly assessed.

We can all think of people or companies that have tried to focused on style over the ability to get the job done – or their counterparts who have revelled in their solidness. Where the right mix of these lies is up to you. A good example to consider is Virgin Trains, whose cheeky bonhomie can jar as the delay outside Watford Junction enters its second hour (whether the fault of Virgin or not) but whose style is important in attracting discretionary travellers.

But at a time when trust in all institutions continues to fall, it’s incumbent on all of us to think about where we and our organisations sit on these building blocks, and whether we are giving our stakeholders adequate tools to judge for themselves. What do you think?


  1. Richard – thank you for an excellent, thoughtful piece. O’Neill distinction between generic indicators of trust and trustworthiness were really helpful, as you say.

    The only thing I took from her that was a bit different to your interpretation was that I think that she was sceptical about whether trust in institutions is actually falling – because the very popular general measures of trust are not very reliable. I think she was making a slightly different point that it is getting harder to trust organisations that are larger, or more complex, or more distant from the point at which we interact with them. I think she was also saying that the rise of social media is also making it harder to judge whether something is trustworthy. I presume the implication is that people are still willing to trust if they can make a good judgement – which we would of course want them to do. It rather implies to me that as a group organisations – charities etc – we should want to make it easier for people to be able to judge what is trustworthy.

    • Thanks Karl. My take was that she warned us against being too beaten up about whether trust in charities is falling, because all trust is falling – for the reasons you mention and also because efforts to be transparent and accountable have not been user-friendly. (Of course, that was a theme also picked up by Fran Perrin and others.) For me, if we really test how our own organisations are seen by our stakeholders against the reliable/competent/honest framework, we should gain insights that will enable us to identify how to improve the way that we present our work so that the public can make informed judgements. In a way (and building on your point) whether trust is falling generally is a red herring because individuals’ interactions with individual organisations remain key and we can still influence these!

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