Social capital and the thickness of trust

With the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer highlighting a cycle of distrust that threatens societal stability, prosocial action by NGOs has never been more important. While NGOs and businesses are more trusted than the government or the media, NGOs have slipped in their rankings in some countries – including Australia.

International readers may find the following extract from the Edelman 2022 Trust Barometer of interest, both for confirmation of your country’s rank relative to the global average of 59, but also for the direction of movement in your country’s score (more or less trust).

Social Capital and your ‘social license’

My earlier post Creating Value using an integrated (multi-capital) approach, identified social capital as one of six types of capital non-profit organisations could seek to weave together into a coherent value strategy.

This post singles out social capital for some further reflection, in particular as it relates to trust and the ‘social license to operate’. These are key success factors for non-profit and for-purpose organisations seeking to support civil society (i.e. to promote social stability).

A ‘social license to operate’ is defined by Dr. Leeora Black, Principal, Deloitte Sustainability Services, as “the level of acceptance or approval that stakeholders and communities extend to a project, site, company or industry“.

While this term may have originated in the mining industry, it has been applied across most sectors for many years now. Associations and charities that lose the confidence of their key stakeholders and/or the community, forfeit their ‘social license to operate’. ‘Thick’ trust is replaced by either ‘thin’ trust or distrust, and so their value proposition is undermined.

Trust Thickness

Distinctions between ‘thick’ particularised trust, and ‘thin’ generalized trust, have been made in sociology for decades, but a more granular trust scale was offered by the UK Financial Service Authority report on Professional Standards and Consumer Trust (2009). This report identified a scale with seven levels of trust, defined as follows:
Primary trust – instinctive trust found in very close relationships
Thick trust – based on familiarity and proven competence and moral standards
Thin trust – based on investigation or analysis of particular individuals or institutions
Ambient trust – based on general knowledge or proxies, but not on personal experience or relationships
Absence of trust or distrust – neither exist
Ambient distrust – based on knowledge or proxies, but not on personal experience or relationships
Thick distrust – based on personal experience of an individual or institution

Your ‘Trust’ Account Balance

The concept of an emotional or relationship bank account was advanced by Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In the header chart above, I’ve renamed it the ‘Trust’ Account, but of course, it could just as easily be called the ‘Social Capital’ Account, recognising that the level of trust we have in an organisation is another name for the level of acceptance or approval we grant them.

The chart could be read to apply to an individual, but in this context, the behaviours collectively demonstrated by directors and managers can be recognised as the source of deposits and withdrawals affecting your organisation’s trust (social capital) account balance.

Paraphrasing Stephen Covey, if your ‘trust’ account is in credit, you may be forgiven for a slip or error – a withdrawal. If you have a zero trust balance or are already in deficit, you have no goodwill ‘buffer’ to protect you from ‘thick’ distrust and its consequences.

See also:

For an extended philosophical analysis of trust concepts, see

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