‘Trust’ is a concept with which associations and charities have had a long and close relationship. The professions, in particular, have long recognised that the asymmetry of knowledge between practitioners and their clients/patients places a special ethical burden on them to always act with the interests of their clients as their top priority. Regrettably, some practitioners have occasionally let the side down, and so tarnished the reputations of their colleagues – with ‘Prof.’ Noel Campbell being one of the more famous in my career. Charities too have worked from the premise that they are there for their cause, and that donors and grant funders can trust that the cause always comes first. They too have seen abuse of trust by people such as Belle Gibson, whose isolated actions, unfortunately, undermine the credibility of even unrelated charities.
The erosion of trust has been evident over many years now, with each year bringing more and more egregious behaviour to light. Witness the Panama Papers, Royal Commissions into child abuse by once respected religious and educational institutions, and bank scandals which seem to unfold with monotonous regularity, demonstrating that these once highly trusted pillars of our economy have been betraying consumer trust as part of their business model. These are just three of the numerous examples we could all list.
Rachel Botsman’s new book “Who can you trust’ is therefore timely, as it sheds some light on the evolution of trust, along with insights such as the notion that trust is like energy, in that it does not die, but merely changes form as our society reflects on the lessons to be learnt from ethical mistakes. She argues that the previous shift from trust in local communities to trust in institutions, which came with the industrial revolution, has been followed since the digital revolution by a shift to distributed trust. Airbnb, Uber, AirTasker and numerous other examples point to the willingness of consumers to now trust strangers, where once this would have been unthinkable.
The full title of her book is ‘Who can you trust?: How technology brought us together and how it could drive us apart”, which confirms that Dr Botsman is not blindly placing faith in the wisdom of crowds or machine intelligence to replace the institutional trust which has been demonstrably misplaced in so many instances. She emphasises the importance of individuals accepting responsibility for their decisions after doing their homework, and warns against both naive acceptance of simplistic rating schemes, and the perils of algorithms applied without the moderating influence of human judgment. As we are soon going to be expected to trust autonomous vehicles and new online transaction systems and digital currencies, her advice on how we might share insights which can improve the choices we make is valuable.
Leaders and policy workers in third sector organisations are urged to read this important book for the insights you will gain into your blind spots, and the opportunity now offered to build a new form of trust based on the distributed model she describes, rather than fiercely holding on to a model whose time has now passed. She quotes the Shirky Principle (attributed to Clay Shirky) that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution“, and this invites all of us who work for third sector organisations to reflect on whether we might have become rusted on to certain problems or definitions of the problems, out of unwitting self-interest.
One of the disruptive aspects of the digital economy has been the growth in online labour markets – the so-called ‘gig economy’. I suspect there will be much more debate about the abuse of labour which has occurred in some instances, as Australia looks to introduce legislation similar to the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, and which will also doubtless recognise some of the principles enshrined in California’s Transparency in Supply Chain legislation.
‘Who can you trust?’ is a thought-provoking book, and once you have obtained and engaged with a copy, I recommend you share it with your colleagues (assuming it is a printed version), as it offers an excellent stimulus for rethinking your organisation’s strategic focus in a world that no longer places unquestioning trust in institutions such as associations and charities.
If you don’t have time to read her book, check out some of her online presentations and podcasts, links to some of which appear below.