Building Trust Across Sectors

Lynda St. Clair, Ph.D and Mary Tschirhart, Ph.D.

Community-wide problems typically require solutions that include participants representing a broad spectrum of the community.  Nonprofits working with government and business can draw on a broad base of resources and experts.  In practice, however, the very diversity that should help to generate innovative solutions often undermines cross-sector inter-organizational networks, especially when the network members do not trust one another.

Trust is “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party” as defined by R. C. Mayer and his colleagues.

Hyung-Woo Lee led a team of researchers to investigate trust in networks that involve partners from multiple sectors.  His co-authored article, recently published in Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, explains that trust in a network is greater when:

  • Network members have a general propensity to trust one another. If you tend to trust others you are more likely to be trusted.
  • Network members are from the same sector. Nonprofits tend to trust the nonprofits in their network more than the government and business members of the network, for example.
  • Network members have a good reputation for being trustworthy. Once trust is broken with one network member, it spills over to negatively affect trust with other network members.
  • Network members are important to one another. If you are dependent on another member of a network you are more likely to try and cultivate trust with that member. The trust you build can be contagious, spreading to other members of the network who are less important to you.
  • Network members interact in a variety of ways. Being involved in diverse activities is more important to building trust in a network than having regular or frequent interactions.

Lee and his co-authors point out that there are steps we can take to build trust within our networks, including:

  • Emphasize areas of compatibility across missions. As expert negotiators know, it is critical to focus on shared goals and interests, rather than on positions. For example, rather than arguing for more police, curfews, or supervised youth activities in the evening, first get agreement on the goal of making the neighborhood safe
  • Create opportunities for multiple types of interaction. Trust is more likely to develop when resources and information are jointly used, network members share the same physical space, services are jointly provided, and members work together on advocacy campaigns. Just having regular meetings to exchange ideas is likely to have little impact on trust within a network.
  • Be trustworthy. Trust is extremely powerful, but also fragile. A relationship that took years to build can be irrevocably damaged in an instant. Even worse, if you violate the trust of one member of your network, your overall reputation as a trustworthy partner will be diminished.
  • Trust others and build mutual dependence. It is important to keep in mind what is often the most difficult part of building a relationship of trust: learning to trust others. By increasing your dependence on others in the network you are likely to increase trust. Making yourself vulnerable to the actions of your network members tends to strengthen network capacity.
  • Use “praise gossip.” Research by Joseph Soesters and Ad Iterson suggests that spreading positive information about your network members will help others trust them. Lee suggests that this “praise gossip” is especially useful in building trust among network members from different sectors.

Networks are more likely to be effective if their members trust one another.  Trust needs to be built and maintained; it should not be assumed to exist.  As outlined above, there are relatively simple steps that can be taken to cultivate trust.


Lee, H-W, Robertson, P. J., Lewis, L. Sloane, D., Galloway-Gilliam, L. and Nomachi, J. (2012). Trust in a cross-sectoral interorganizational network: An empirical investigation of antecedentsNonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 41(4): 609-631.

Mayer, R. C., Davis, J. H., & Schoorman, F. D. (1995). An integrative model of organizational trust.  Academy of Management Review, 20: 709-734.

Soesters, J., & van Iterson, A. (2002) Blame and gossip in organizations: Established, outsiders and the civilizing process.  In A. van Iterson, W. Mastenboek, T. Newton, & D. Smith (Eds.), The civilized organization: Norbert Elias and the future of organizational studies (pp. 25-40). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamin B.V.

Lynda St. Clair, Ph.D., is a retired management professor and co-author of Becoming a Master Manager, now in its fifth edition.  Mary Tschirhart, Ph.D., is a Professor of Public Administration and the Director of the Institute for Nonprofits at North Carolina State University.

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.