Americans’ trust in charity steady amid pandemic, poll finds

After years of declines, Americans’ trust in civil-rights and community-action charities increased in 2020, according to a new study, which also found that trust in charities overall held steady as millions more Americans came to rely on not-for-profits amid the pandemic.

The share of people with high trust in civil-rights and community-action groups fell steadily from 25% in 2017 to 13% in 2019 before reversing course in 2020 to 16%, according to the annual “Profiles in Charity Trust and Giving” survey, conducted by, a charity evaluator affiliated with the Better Business Bureau.

Elvia Castro, a manager at and one of the authors of the report, said the racial justice movement almost certainly is behind the shift in Americans’ trust for organizations that they perceive as being in favor of social change.

Sam Graddy, diversity giving officer at Jackson Laboratory, said donors may see civil rights organizations as problem-solvers in an area that has generated tremendous public attention in recent years.

“I can see where trust would go up in those types of organizations. They seem to be about the solution,” said Graddy, who works to persuade donors to support researchers from diverse backgrounds and to support scholarship on what’s behind health disparities between whites and people of color.

Overall, 18% of people surveyed in 2020 place high trust in charities, a figure that has held steady from 17% to 19% since 2017. At the same time, fewer people say trust in charities is highly important to their giving decisions, declining from 73% in 2017 to 63% in 2020.

As for the broader finding of a persistent lack of faith in not-for-profits generally, Graddy said it likely reflects societal trends of heightened suspicions of people toward their fellow Americans.

“There’s just not a whole lot of trust in society,” he said.

Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor emeritus of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University, said even though more people have relied on charities in recent years, those experiences were not necessarily positive. Long lines at food banks, for example, may have affected people’s perceptions of charities, he said.

Lenkowsky also noted that trust is a difficult thing for researchers to measure, and he cited a previous survey by Independent Sector, in partnership with Edelman Data & Intelligence, that found the largest share of people fall somewhere in middle when asked about trust in not-for-profits.

The report is based on a survey conducted in December 2020 of more than 2,100 U.S. adults. It has a margin of error of 2%.

The study pointed to a key finding for fundraisers: People of color are more likely to be open to charitable solicitations. For example, 22% of African Americans and Hispanics said they would like to be approached more by charities to give, compared with 9% of whites. The figure was 11% for Asian Americans.

An additional 28% of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans said they might be willing to give more if approached, compared with 16% of whites.

There were also big generational divides, with 24% of millennials saying they would like to be approached more often, compared with 2% of people 77 or older and baby boomers.

Lenkowsky said it is important for fundraisers to note another statistic in the report: Fifty-five percent of respondents don’t want to hear more often from charities.

“A lot of people in this report do not want their door darkened by more solicitations,” Lenkowsky said.

Other findings:

• Fewer donors in 2020 reported giving to religious, animal welfare, veterans, education, international relief, youth development, and police and firefighter organizations, as well as not-for-profit hospitals than in 2019. But more gave to environmental, health, arts and cultural, and civil-rights and community-action organizations.

• 20% of those surveyed responded to a mailed appeal for money, compared with 28% in 2017. Nine percent participated in a fundraising event, compared with 19% in 2017.

• 51% of African Americans expressed a preference for giving to groups that help other Black people, compared with 40% of Hispanics who wanted to help people like themselves, 29% of whites, and 27% of Asian Americans.

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