This blog was originally published on Humentum by Tom Dente.

The past several weeks has been especially challenging for international humanitarian organizations in the UK as they address public revelations of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation and come together to strengthen practices and policies for preventing further occurrences. Bond, the UK network for organizations working in international development, conducted its annual conference February 27-28 in London, where an important theme was addressing safeguarding and responding to the related issue of declining trust in the sector.

The Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, set the overall tone for the conference in her keynote. She stated that in the current environment, “business as usual is not going to cut it” and that now is the time to recommit to the needs of those being served, the expectations of the public, and our values as a sector. Other speakers highlighted the need to not only address safeguarding beneficiaries and employees, but in doing so, also restore and enhance public trust. Gerard Howe, the head of the Inclusive Societies Department at DFID, noted that “trust is the oxygen we breathe,” and Kevin Watkins, the CEO at Save The Children UK said that “this is our 2008 financial crisis moment” and that NGOs must take action.

Specific conference sessions, notably one entitled Building Trust in Your Organization, expanded upon this theme. Panelists highlighted how institutional and public trust are becoming more distributed and less hierarchical. Distributed trust leads to greater transparency and, along with social media, can accelerate the public’s sense of confidence—or lack thereof—in an organization. Rupert Younger, the director of Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, spoke about the specific nature of trust for our sector. He highlighted that there are high expectations for both a nonprofit organization’s character—or what you can expect when you interact with the organization—and competency—or how well the organization delivers the work it does. Both characteristics of character and competency are required to sustain trust.

Our Humentum community of operational leaders and experts play special roles in enhancing trust on behalf of each of their organizations. In our shared commitment to operational excellence, Humentum’s community members are heavily involved in strengthening “trust” areas of competency. Our community shares practices and develops policies and processes across a wide range of areas including safeguarding, anti-corruption, anti-fraud, and data protection to name a few. Experts in each functional area continue to ask themselves ‘how do we do this better?’ which is at the core of organizational competency, often under real constraints of resources and funding. Competencies do not stand still, though. The actions of bad actors require the ongoing evolution of practices, approaches, and policies with operational experts at the forefront of addressing changing requirements.

But as the panelists on the Bond trust session observed, an organization focused on competency alone is not enough to sustain trust as no one organization is immune from incidents that range from fraud to harassment that create harm and undermine trust. Equally important is our character as professionals in our community.

Early in my career as a management consultant, one of my clients was a financial services firm that was focused on being customer-centric. The doorways at its headquarters were emblazoned with the phrase “think of yourself as a customer” and all of its employees’ business cards carried the title “Customer Advocate” as a way to communicate and reinforce the culture they were trying to create. I was reminded of this while thinking about the unspoken role that individuals in our community assume as informal “Trust Advocates.” In many ways, trust advocate is the common title and role we all share regardless of our organization. These unofficial roles help create the character underpinnings of trust that the Bond panel highlighted.  

I have been fortunate to meet and work with many individuals in our community and across our sector who act as trust advocates. They communicate and represent our values, and their actions, small and large, work to enhance and strengthen the public’s faith in our work and how we deliver on our missions. These informal trust advocates exist across all levels, functional disciplines, and organizations. Their actions reinforce the competencies that operational excellence represents. In these days when confidence in our sector is facing new challenges, the deep competencies advanced by our operations community and the trusted character that operations professionals display are more needed and important than ever.

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