Trust: not expectations, assumptions or wishful thinking

When you ask people to define the word ‘Trust’, you invariably get myriad answers coming from different perspectives and experiences. It’s a broad concept and although there’s a dictionary definition, it doesn’t quite get to the essence of what trust truly is. As an emotion, it’s very complex.

Defining trust in organisational terms can be a tough task too. Trust is usually based on our reaction to others’ actions, coupled with the unconscious prejudices we build up over time. We may never trust someone or something due to a past experience, even if others do.

Many people also confuse trust with expectations, assumptions or even wishful thinking.

In our daily lives, we assume law makers will make decisions to protect us; we assume that when we hop on a bus or train, the maintenance team has done a good job; we assume the right processes are in place or that business decisions have been made for the right reasons. To replace the word ‘assume’ or ‘hope’ with ‘trust’, in the examples above, we must go much deeper.

Trust isn’t something that is given unconditionally, so reflecting on NFP boards many things need to converge to build true trust. It is multidirectional and includes dealings of the board within itself, between management and the board, and trust from key stakeholders.

We quite often hear phrases such as “I trust you are doing the right thing” or “I trust you will come up with the best outcome”, which means the board must behave in a deliberate fashion in its actions to be trusted.

Stakeholders are ‘trusting’ the board to act in their best interest to provide employment, deliver services and make the most of the funds available. Unfortunately, many NFP boards (and for profit boards for that matter) don’t get it right.

There are some tips for NFP board members or Chairs on turning assumptions, hope and wishful thinking into trust. Building trust happens when:


The board uses all available knowledge to explore, debate and formulate plans and scenarios that are based on best thinking and practice. They respect the knowhow within the organisation and actively seek input from internal experts.


Collectively they use their experiences gained from work, association, education and life to ensure mistakes are minimised and methods are efficient. The hiring and onboarding of new members is deliberate and linked to strategy and purpose. There is respect for individual experiences and a safe forum for these to be explored.


The board builds and nurtures mutually beneficial relationships with all stakeholders. This starts within the board itself and travels across management, employees, partners, funders, clients and others. Strong and open relationships are a key foundation of trust.


All board members are fully committed to the board as a unit, as directors and take their fiduciary responsibilities seriously. The board works actively together and through their networks to ensure the organisation has the best chance for now and into the future.


Whether it be financial management, decision making processes or communication, the board has tried and accepted ways to manage governance and deal with most situations. There is respect for the way the board handles matters from strategy through to crisis and acceptance from management that the board is working in the best interest of the organisation.


The board is open in the way it deals with matters and accepts its limitations and boundaries. A full evaluation process will be in place that includes investigations into issues or mistakes, and there is open and honest discussion on the findings through to continuous improvements. Covering things up or bending the truth are fast ways to lose trust.


For a not for profit director empathy is probably one of the most important things that builds trust. The implied definition of a not for profit includes the use of surplus funds to better the cause, assist members or further its purpose and mission. Boards that can empathise and connect with their members, clients or benefitting stakeholders stand a much better chance in building trust through better decision making and faithfulness to purpose.


Of course, trust doesn’t manifest itself overnight. These elements practiced mindfully and deliberately over time will help the board build and hold the trust they deserve.

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robert @ leadingforpurpose . com . au

Amplify Me Pty Ltd trading as

Leading For Purpose