I lead a workshop on organizational partnerships, and when I talk about the ingredients for success, the first slide has one word: Trust. It’s kind of a do-not-pass-go concept. Doesn’t matter how compelling the business case may be, or what other compatibilities may be present. No trust, no partnership.

This may obvious, but how you establish trust is not. Different cultures view this process in varying ways; even regional cultures within a country or organizational cultures may have big differences. In some cases you may start with the presumption of trust, but this can vanish with one meeting or the first indication to the contrary. In other cases, ground zero may be “guilty until proven innocent.” There, nothing is assumed, and everything is built from the ground up. Either way, the roots need to grow.  My advice to students and clients is that they should be prepared to make the establishment (and assessment) of trust a major priority worthy of a major time investment.

Trust is defined in my dictionary as the “Firmly held belief in the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing; confidence or reliance.” It’s really two things—confidence in a partner’s honesty and confidence that a partner will follow through on commitments. When you think about it, nonprofit operations are all about partnerships, and therefore all about trust—between board and staff, the organization and its donors, clients, government agencies, and so on. When trust is there, things tend to go well. When it breaks down, they don’t.

This is why I was fascinated by a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2015 issue) article by Charles McJilton. He’s the CEO of Second Harvest Japan, a food distribution nonprofit. (As a former board member of America’s Second Harvest, now called Feeding America, I was especially curious about his experience.)  

McJilton talks about some unconventional ways he’s built trust among donors of food and funds. He mentions some important context—that Japan’s nonprofit culture is less developed than North America’s. I’m sure his methods were also influenced by Japanese cultural traits. But his methods are deceptively simple and intriguingly relevant to anyplace humans cooperate.  

For example, when getting to know potential food donors, he does not make an “ask,” even though they routinely expect a solicitation. Instead, he tells them he is interested in building the relationship, and will work on their timeline—whenever they are ready, he’ll accept a donation, no sooner. Another example came up immediately after natural disaster struck.  Even though the needs for services spiked and donors were ready to give, the organization did not immediately accept financial contributions. The reason? Second Harvest did not yet have a plan for how it would spend the money. They communicated this reasoning to the public, which reacted with some head-scratching, as well as respect and appreciation.

The effect has been that the organization has built solid trust with its supporters.  Deeply rooted, this trust may be solid for the long-haul.

Basically, McJilton is talking about playing the long game, and does this by building authentic relationships through transparency and recognition that partnership is a two-way street. It’s not about taking, it’s about mutual respect and exchanging value in a shared enterprise.  

Many nonprofits share this level of trust with supporters. But many of us know of exceptions, where trust has eroded quickly.  It’s great to have fresh examples like this one. Playing the long game sometimes requires stepping back and thinking about the quality and depth of our relationships. In the end, that’s a big part of what sustains organizations.

I’ll end my seasonal trilogy with a movie recommendation: A Most Wanted Man. No one weaves a spy tale like John Le Carre. It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last picture, and he’s terrific.  But the lead character in the film is actually Trust.