Trust is a cherished commodity these days. Trust in government is at a historic low. Trust in businesses has remained steady over the years, but isn’t much to brag about. A Forrester Research survey found that:

  • Only 10 percent of consumers trust advertising.
  • Between 85 and 90 percent don’t trust posts by companies or brands on social networking sites.
  • Only 8 percent trust emails from companies and brands.

Thank goodness, you work for an association. But associations have to earn trust too. You would think that if a person or company pays hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of dollars to join an organization, their trust comes along with the check. Not necessarily so.

Think about your payments to cable, phone or insurance companies. How much trust do you have in, for example, Comcast or Time Warner? You need what they’re selling, but that doesn’t mean you trust them. You have a transactional, not a trusting, relationship.

Some members join because they must, not because they really want to. Perhaps they have to join at the national level if they want to be part of a local chapter. Or, they have to join to register for your conference. Or, they have to join because it’s the expected thing to do. Can you assume you’ve earned their trust?

Luckily, most members join more willingly. Their decision to join is based on your value or reputation, or on recommendations from others. They have high expectations for an experience, not a transaction. And you still have to earn their trust.

Seth Godin warns us not to be complacent about trust. He asks, “How have you regularly overinvested and prioritized being the most trustworthy organization/individual in your industry? Being just like the others and doing your job doesn’t get you to this level.” Don’t assume trust will develop between you and your members. You have to be intentional about it.

The 5Cs of trust for 501(c)s

The Values Institute identified five values at work in growing trust:

  • Competence
  • Consistency
  • Connection
  • Candor
  • Concern

Competence and Consistency are functional values – “essential for building a foundation of trust.” During the recession, we lowered our brand expectations to basic, functional requirements – competent products and services delivered consistently. Amazon is the most trusted and essential of all of the retail brands, according to Forrester Research, because it consistently delivers on its promises, provides good value for the money and has the highest-quality products and offerings.

How does a trustworthy association demonstrate these values?


  • Provide high-quality programs and resources that members want and need.
  • Operate efficiently with streamlined processes, well-trained staff and effective use of technology.
  • Be innovative, nimble and responsive.
  • Achieve goals and fulfill mission.


  • Encourage everyone — volunteer leaders, CEO and staff – to behave according to the values espoused by the association.
  • Be reliable, dependable and stable in good times and bad.
  • Honor the membership (value) promise. PayPal, another trusted company, promises (and delivers) a safe and secure payment service.

Connection – “the bridge to a deeper, more meaningful relationship.”

  • Provide frequent, targeted communication and engage regularly with members and the community.
  • Maintain an active media presence. Be a social CEO or staffer.
  • Provide a relevant, personalized experience, like Amazon’s.
  • Don’t take relationships for granted. All types of engagement are identified and acknowledged
  • Help members feel connected to the people behind the association brand – volunteer leaders, staff and CEO. Encourage staff and volunteers to be brand ambassadors.

As we move further away from the recession, we expect our emotional needs to be satisfied too. Candor and Concern are emotional values.


  • Exhibit transparency and honesty.
  • Open up governance. Help members understand how and why decisions are made.
  • Have a plan to address issues and crises head on.


  • Demonstrate how much the association respects, advocates for and cares about members, attendees and employees.
  • Listens to needs and feedback, both good and bad.
  • Be member-focused, not leadership-focused. Amazon “seeks to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.”
  • Repair and squash adversarial, “us vs. them” attitudes.
  • Become an inclusive culture.

The 5Cs of trust fit onto a sticky note. They’re a good reminder of what we need to do to truly earn the trust of our members, customers, attendees and community.

Deirdre Reid, CAE is a freelance writer who is just now realizing how few brands she does trust. Blame it on Facebook.