Kristen Grimm of Spitfire Strategies Takes on the Trust Challenge – Transcript


Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.

Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and non profit communications, produced by its two co-hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.

Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.

Eric: And I’m Eric. The podcast is sponsored by the College Futures Foundation. which envisions a California where post secondary education advances equity and unlocks upward mobility now and for generations to come. To learn more, visit

Kirk: You can find Let’s Hear It on any podcast subscription platform.

Eric: You can find us online at You can find us on LinkedIn and yes, even on Instagram.

Kirk: And if you like the show, please, please, please rate us on Apple Podcasts so that more people can find us.

Eric: So let’s get onto the show.


Kirk: And we’re back. Welcome in. Gather round. It’s another episode of Let’s Hear It. You found us. Let’s welcome and gather. Let’s, Eric, I trust that we’re gonna have a good time over the next few minutes because there’s a lot we should talk about when it comes to trust in civil society.

Eric: What a coincidence. ’cause we’re gonna talk about trust. How you been, by the way, Kirky?

Kirk: Uh, I’ve been great. How are you?

Eric: I’m, I’m good. You know. All right. I’m gonna say something and you’re gonna get all crazy.

Kirk: Oh, don’t, don’t, but okay.

Eric: Uh, you’re gonna get a little nuts. I think the show’s going pretty well these days.

Kirk: Aw, that’s a happy thing. Yeah. Well, I, I, and I can tell you exactly why. I know exactly. Why do you wanna know why? I have no idea. It’s because of this incredible roster of guests you’ve been assembling. That’s exactly why. Oh, that’s, these are great conversations and this is where I’m gonna go crazy because this is exactly what should be happening.

These discussions should be happening in your this is your service, Mr. Brown. This is your service to the field. Just putting Angie’s list, putting the requests out. People come on. They’re great discussions and, and I’ll say, we’ve gone from the consequential. This is enormous. What we’re about to this, this might be the most enormous discussion we’ve ever had on, let’s hear it.

The most enormous, the most enormous, the most would, would you? When you, when you break it all down and you get to trust? When you start talking about trust, tell me what’s bigger. Tell me what’s bigger.

Eric: It is the, it is the most enormous conversation ever.

Kirk: So set it up. ’cause there’s a lot, there’s a lot to talk about here.

Eric: Alright, well I had a conversation with Kristen Grimm, who folks may remember from the first season –

Kirk: Geez!

Eric: – of Let’s Hear It. And so we launched the season in 2019, 5 years ago and change. But the conversation I had with. Kristen, I think was even before that. Mm-Hmm. It was, I don’t know. Anyway, it was a, a long time ago, but Kristen Grimm, as many folks know, is the founder of Spitfire Strategies.

This is like becoming the Spitfire Channel. And so we had her back on way back when, and she has since been kicked herself upstairs. She is, uh, the whatever, she’s the, the CEO emeritus. Because as folks know that we’ve had Jen, we had Jen carne her successor on, uh, recently. Uh, but Kristen is, has not gone away.

She has not gone gently into that good night to steal from, with apologies to Dylan Thomas, and continues to work really, really hard. And she has just now co-authored a new resource called “Replenishing Trust, Civil Society’s Guide to Reversing the Trust Deficit,” co-authored with Claire De Leon, Michael Crawford and Diana Chun, and I think in a presidential year at a time when societies, communities, you name it, are spinning out of control and trust feels to be so valuable, but so hard to come by. I think that this resource could not be better timed.

Kirk: Enormously important. And mighty thanks to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for supporting the work. Though Kristen’s careful to point out, they don’t necessarily support all the findings in the work.

Eric: May not agree with it, but they supported it.

Kirk: But they help create it. So let’s listen.

Eric: I probably would agree with most of it.

Kirk: I would imagine. I would imagine every single thing. I would imagine, and it was, it was shocking to hear you reflect that it had been five years ago that you and Kristen spoke last. I was like, oh, Kristen’s back. That’s great. All of a sudden, five years went by in a heartbeat.

Unbelievable. And a lot of things happened. A lot of things happened in the five years. What’d they say? So thank you, Kristen, Claire, Michael, Diana for this work. Read “Replenishing Trust, Civil Society’s Guide to Reversing the Trust Deficit.” Another great contribution from Spitfire Strategies, much to discuss here.

Let’s listen to Eric and Kristen on Let’s Hear It and we’ll be back.


Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It. My guest today is none other than the legendary. Kristen Grimm, the founder of Spitfire Strategies. Now, Kristen has co-authored a new resource called “Replenishing Trust, Civil Society’s Guide to Reversing the Trust Deficit.” And her co-authors are Claire De Leon, Michael Crawford, and Diana Chun. And Kristen, you are now a second time guest. We last spoke. We, you were last on the show April of 2019.

Kristen: It is true.

Eric: It’s been five years. Uh, how you doing?

Kristen: Uh, I’m doing good. There was this weird pandemic in the middle of all of that. I don’t, as you might recall.

Eric: No, I do not.

Kristen: I am, but I got to the other side of that feeling good, but not feeling very good about the rapid decline of trust in society. It’s definitely gotten my attention.

Eric: Wow. That was an extremely good segue. You, you’ve done this before, but wait, I have other questions before we get into the rapid lead declining trust in society for, so my first question obviously is how’s retirement?

Kristen: Well it, it’s really misnamed. While I did give, give Jen Carnig the presidency of Spitfire and she is doing phenomenal, I should say, the client work continues and all the issues I said are so important to work on, unfortunately are still there. And so I find myself counseling a lot of things.

It’s, so, retirement is as busy as being the president of Spitfire, so I haven’t, I haven’t figured out the. Retirement workless thing.

Eric: Yeah, I didn’t think so. That was a largely rhetorical question. And, and also by the way, I should say welcome to Spitfire Radio.

Kristen: That’s right, that’s right.

Eric: Yeah, we had Nima on. So yes, Nima, all sorts of Spitfires. Uh, though, uh, we’ll, we’ll try to. Even though the equal, whatever the fairness doctrine in broadcasting is no longer in effect, we’ll do our best to get lots of other firms and consultants out on because they deserve it too. Alright. Yes. So now as, as you very elegantly segued into, and I very in elegantly segued us out of, tell me about this new report.

Kristen: Yes, so replenishing trust is for civil society leaders to give them concrete ways to think about how they can build trust in society. As I mentioned, we we’re seeing a real decline in trust, and while it is true that there are chaos agents out there who are contributing to that, it also is that there’s not necessarily a lot of people thinking really deliberately about what are the kind of behaviors and practices that institutions can do to build trust. And one of the greatest assets we have in America is our civil society. It’s one of the strongest in the world. So actually, as far as rebuilding goes, we actually have this great group of leaders that if they would turn their attention to trust, we could actually see a reverse in this decline.

Eric: And, and so where did the trust go? Where did the love go, Kristen? What, where did the love  go? We were, we were, we once a very trusting society and now we’re not, or we’re mediocre. And now we’re horrible.

Kristen: Well, for some people we were once a really trusting society. Of course there was a number of people in society who never really got a fair shake from the institutions and they never had high levels of trust and rationally so for other people, we did have higher levels of trust.

We believed that our institution operated with integrity and , I think it’s part of being a democracy actually, is that people are highly critical of our institutions and for very good reason. And I don’t think that the institutions on the other side of it, again, always thought to themselves we have to actively rebuild trust, or in some instances with populations, we have to build trust in the first place.

And so there was just sort of this acceptance that people would trust and they don’t necessarily, but when you think about how democracy operates. We have to trust strangers, right? We have to trust that strangers, institutions, we will never meet will be doing their job, and therefore my social security check will come and the mail will come.

And I won’t die hopefully from eating out ’cause the public health will be there. And that when people tell us that climate change is real and we need to get on top of it, they’re telling us the truth. So we really do as a society, need to have high social trust. So the continued decline. , it’s okay for it to go up and down sometimes, but it’s not okay to be in a steep decline.

Eric: Well, and you talk about institutions, but institutions are made up of people, and so where are you seeing this as an institutional question and where are you seeing it as a hand-to-hand question?

Kristen: I only really am studying it on the institutional level, so I’m really looking at social trust.

Mm-Hmm. Like, I’m not looking at Eric, do you trust me? And I trust you, but I am saying, Hey Eric, do you trust? Spitfire and do you trust the entire field of public interest communication? Do we think we have your best interest in society’s best interest at heart? And that is really important. So I’m looking at that institutional level, and I think it’s.

Easy, or at least it’s convenient to say, gosh, people should be more trusting and sure people should be more trusting, but institutions are gonna have to go first. So I just remind organizations all the time, to your point, are made up of people and the people make decisions. But especially when you’re in.

The social sector, you’re having to make decisions where values clash, frankly. And if you don’t explain that very well, if you don’t set expectations for that very well, if you don’t have the integrity to live up to, the values you state are so important, it will decrease trust? So when Time’s Up said they believed victims and everybody started to really think about how we could make sure we don’t have sexual assaults in the workplace when they’re caught counseling a governor who’s been accused. It’s a problem. And so we have to look as institutions, we do have to really live up to those values.

And again, and when we screw up and we will screw up, we have to say, I’m sorry.

Eric: You know, this is interesting. I, I was thinking the other day, somebody told, told me that they don’t, when they go through a, a, an intersection, because so many people are running red lights in their town. They don’t trust the green light.

I mean, yeah. And, and that I. That sense of, right, a social breakdown. It must have repercussions everywhere. So now when you talk about institutions, obviously the institutions that you and I and many of our listeners care a lot about are foundations and nonprofits, which are one part of our civil society.

How, how in your research would you say the foundations and nonprofits are doing kind of in the aggregate as far as trust goes?

Kristen: I mean, they’re doing better than some other sectors are, but they’re decreasing. It’s any, and, and in some instances they’re falling faster than other sectors. So that’s the concern.

So while it’s still above 50%, it’s getting closer and closer to that, less than half that we really don’t want. And again, it’s, it’s understandable to some extent when you either have systemic racism and other systemic issues that have been going on a long time and not solved, that leads to frustration and then.

Real distrust, but also like right now with so many things going on in the world I think that people really do wanna be able to trust people, but then they do things that really backfire. And once people start becoming less trusting too, they’re looking for it. So they’re looking for the evidence that’s going to tell you, I really shouldn’t trust this nonprofit or this institution.

And I think we do behaviors and practices because we’re not constantly thinking. Is this the most? Is this the way to show up in the most trustworthy fashion? So short, small example, but. Whenever I go to a website now, the very first thing that when I get there, so I’m looking to see like, are there han rights violations going on somewhere?

Or , what’s going on with the climate? And instead it’s like, donate page comes up first, and I know the development people are gonna wanna kill me. But the truth is that immediately doesn’t make me think, oh, these people are totally on top of their job. It’s like I already feel like they’re just looking at me as like.

Get them money. It starts to make me think like, are they in financial straits? You know, there’s this whole thing that’s going on in my head, but what’s not necessarily going on in my head is like, this is a super trustworthy organization because that’s my first, how I’m building a relationship with them.

Now again, it may be that they’re gonna do other things that are really gonna build my trust and that’s the best way for them to be financially stable. But I don’t know what those other behaviors are ’cause I’m not seeing those behaviors. So. You know, there’s some very specific things that we need to do, and one of them is the trust trio, we call it.

And that’s really where people are, they’re given a fair shake with your organization. Equality is the first one just like fair shake. The second is competence, that you actually are competent to do what you say you’re gonna do. And the last is that I have hope, and again, I just want you to think about what I just said about, I’ve gone to visit this website.

And the donation page has come up and it’s, it’s not doing any of those things. So we’re actually doing things that are undermining it ourselves, which we need to stop doing. We need to say, does this action increase trust? And I think if people ask that more regularly, we’d be doing really different things.

Eric: Now, competence is something that you kind of have to prove. You can’t just say it, right? Hey, we really, we’re really competent. How does, how does an organization. Properly demonstrate confidence and then communicate it in a way that doesn’t make ’em look kind of stupid.

Kristen: Well, I think to your point though, people do really wanna know that you did the thing you said you were gonna do.

I had this great conversation actually with Patagonia, which at the time last year was ranked by the top brands in the world by one of the rankers. And I specifically asked about this issue around. Competence. And one thing that I love that their person said was, she said that when they go to do something, so like when there are these supply chain issues, which there are for Patagonia, they don’t send out a press release to say they’re going to look at the supply chain issue.

They said they prefer to send out a press release about what they did, about the supply chain issue. And to me that’s the really different way of thinking for organizations. And I know you too as a communicator. You know, one of the reasons I think I got into this trust building, which , honestly is organizational.

Change. It’s not comms all the time, but it’s because I’m the one that gets the 11 o’clock phone call at night that says, this looks really bad. Right Kristen? I’m like, this is really bad. It’s not just that it looks bad. And so I think that’s a really important thing too, to say about competence is it is what you did, not what you’re gonna do or not.

You know, you’re well intentioned and I think that can be hard for leaders is that they do feel like. People kind of have that attitude like, what have you done for me lately? But people really wanna know that you’re walking your talk. , and when you’re not and you try and put lipstick on the pig on that front it’s probably, it’s a really big problem.

People see through it, and right now we have higher levels of skepticism in society, so they’re looking for it. You have a lot of scrutiny right now.

Eric: Well, you, you mentioned a little bit about not thinking that you were gonna go and do a trust piece, but what was it about this question that inspired you to spend the time and effort that it takes to put out a report of this level of detail?

Kristen: Yeah, so Alan Brooks, Lecher, and I from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who funded this, and I should say that they don’t necessarily agree with all the views, but he and I were really talking about it. ’cause we just kept seeing more and more and more report, and as Alan will say, let’s quit talking more and more about the problem.

Like, I think we’re, we now have almost analysis paralysis around it, right? That we, it’s just getting worse and we, we know a lot about it. We hear from a lot of experts about how bad it is. But what we didn’t really see was the report that’s said, what are we supposed to be doing about it? And that was my first hypothesis was we not know how to build social trust.

Like maybe it was one of those things like it’s AI and like, I don’t know how to go into chat GPT and get it to do my bidding. But no, actually there’s tons of research. The first thing we did was a big landscape review and found out that, oh, there is a bunch of stuff. But it is kind of buried in all this academic jargon.

So , that’s the one thing fit Byre likes to do is to say, okay, we’re gonna translate this. And I really got specific about civil society leaders. ’cause yeah, this might help government and it might help business too. But I wanted to say, Hey, let’s use our civil society, which a lot of people do have.

A lot of folk is sort of there to speak truth to power and to have our best intentions front and center. And so that’s why we decided to really focus on what civil society leaders could do.

Eric: Well, there are a lot of delicious tidbits in this report. I have to say. For example, I mean, you, you note that now this is not necessarily about government.

But there you, you gave some examples around government. For example, the National Park Service does really well in the trust meter relative to say the Internal Revenue Service, I’m guessing, or immigration. How is that, how does one aspect of a hated institution. Do so well in the trust meter.

Kristen: So I think the first thing to to think about is at least the government is actually asking which of these institutions do you trust?

And if you don’t trust them, why? And so you hear that the National Park Service. Has high trust. Now, some of this can seem sort of intuitive. A lot of people have experienced a national park. You go there, it was in fact something you could go visit, you were welcomed. Generally, they’re clean. The rangers are always nice, tell really, really, really bad dad jokes.

So I think there’s a lot about setting expectations and keeping expectations. The National Park Service. Walks there talk in a lot of ways. You know, they’re conserving a lot of things. They’re, you see them acting with integrity, which really matters to people versus immigration and natural services.

Like we’re regularly seeing them, not like if those are our values that they’re supposed to be living, I think on a regular basis you’re also seeing them not do that. But again, I, I think what’s important is. In this case, the agency get actual feedback about, well, what is it that gives people pause? And I think it’s so important to understand where your trust fractures are as an organization.

Like if you don’t even know what your trust fractures are, it’s gonna be really hard to improve them. So I don’t think immigration and net naturalization services are not gonna be a beloved agency like the National Park Service, they don’t have Smokey the Bear. They’re not going to have Smokey the Bear.

I hope somebody doesn’t propose that. I also think that they can do things where people feel like they’re treating people really fairly. I think they can be doing things where they seem like they’re actually helping with the problem and people are really concerned about immigration rather than making it worse.

So I think they’ve been given really good guidance. Now, again, do I think that that agency really is trying to build high social trust? I, I’m not sure. I I haven’t, I haven’t heard that. So it would be good if they did it more deliberately.

Eric: Well, we’re gonna take a very quick break and be back with Kristen Grimm to talk about this new report. We trust that you’ll come back and we’ll see you in a second.


Eric: You are listening to Let’s Hear It, a podcast about foundation and nonprofit communications hosted by Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. If you’re enjoying this episode, you may just be a rule breaker. Tune in to Break Fake Rules, a new limited series podcast with Glen Galaich, CEO of the Stupski Foundation. Hear from leaders in philanthropy, nonprofits, government, media, and more to learn about challenges they’ve overcome by breaking fake rules and which rules we should commit to breaking together. We are also sponsored by the Conrad Prebys Foundation. Check out their amazingly good podcast, and we’re not just saying that, Stop and Talk, hosted by Prebys Foundation CEO, Grant Oliphant. You can find them at And now back to the show.


Eric: And I am back with Kristen Grimm, the founder of Spitfire Strategies and the co-author of a new resource called “Replenishing Trust, Civil Society’s Guide to Reversing the Trust Deficit.”

You had mentioned a little bit about how the National Park Service asks their visitors a lot of questions. How tuned in do you think most organizations are about how well they are trusted? I mean, do they think they’re more trustworthy than they actually are? I mean, how, how are they getting feedback and what are they doing about it?

Kristen: I do think that organizations are starting to really hone in on this sense of trust. I think I. In other ways they, it might have been like when you think about the Center for Effective Philanthropy, who of course does grantee perception reports. You know, they may not be asking specifically like, do you trust us?

But really when you add up a bunch of that grantee perception, you can kind of know if they trust that foundation or not. Although I think it would be easier if you just asked it straight up and, and certainly I think organizations as they’re doing more. To check in on their own teams. And how do people feel about the direction of the organization?

How do they feel about leadership? I think a lot of these are proxies for do you trust us? I don’t know though that people really say, I have these trust fractures that we really need to put together. Like for example if you happen to say you wanna be a really diverse organization and then your organizational stats come out and you’re not a very diverse organization.

You know, either you could be silent and not really say, just be like, we’re recording on it. So what? You could try and rationalize it, and I think in some cases when people do that and they step in it, like we’re having a really hard time finding qualified candidates. I think that now you’re starting to actually step in it on the trust front versus.

We see that we’ve really fallen short from where we expect it to be. Here are some concrete actions we’re planning to take and hold ourselves accountable for it, including asking for participation of the staff. What do you, how do you think we should solve this problem? Because people really expect to be participating with organizations as you both set and live your moral norms

Eric: Well, you do a really good job in the report.

Talking about what you do when the trust gets broken and it’s, I would say it’s like a classic, wonderful guide for crisis communications. Yes. What can, can you talk more about what the, what the report is, what’s in it, and how folks can use it?

Kristen: The report goes through several sections, which I think are at the right building blocks for getting on top of.

How can you be building strong trust? And the first is to actually decide what is the spirit of trust you wanna have and with whom. I think it’s so important for you to understand. I wanna be trusted on the following things. You can’t be trusted on everything. As I mentioned, your values are, you’re gonna clash if you’re the ACL U.

People better know. Free speech is your nber one value. ’cause sometimes you’re gonna do that. Instead of some other values, which might also be very important. So the spirit of trusting and with who you wanna have it really important. And I would say that that’s a collaborative docent, right? Like what is your spirit of trust should be with your board and your staff and the communities closest to you.

  1. Then you need to assess, well, where are we? So you might see as a sector, it’s declining. Maybe you’re one of the highest, best trusted organizations in the world. Maybe you’re one of the worst, but you better know what it is. So we have 11 signs of high trust. So you’re looking, how many of these signs can you find?

And then we go through like, okay, so what are trust fractures and how might they show up? So an example is a social trap. Social trap is basically says. I know that I should do this and it’s really good for everybody if I were to do this, but I don’t think someone else is gonna do it, so I’m not gonna do it.

So if you look at water restrictions, I live in the West. We all know we’re not supposed to be watering our lawns every day, but I see my neighbor, so the next thing I know I’m doing it. So we all know we’re not supposed to be doing it, but we’re in this social trap. ’cause we actually don’t trust each other.

To your point of, of the, the late earlier, if we don’t trust that everybody’s gonna stop at the late, then. It becomes a real free for all. And then we say, okay, so now  what your level of trust is. Here are 10 concrete behaviors and practices you can do that might help you contribute to higher social trust.

And we go through walk your talks. We talk about putting your best fit forward. And we talk about don’t step in it. So there is these 10, and I don’t expect anybody who’s gonna be able to be like, I got all 10 right now. Like, yeah, it’s gonna take a little while. But I also think if you really understand what you’re dealing with, you might say, you know what?

We gotta be a little better on the integrity front. I know that sounds crazy, but there are so many organizations who make these big statements and you and I know them ’cause we help grasp them and then boy do their actions, not back them up. So just aligning I’d start there, I’d really align and say, where could we just align better and immediately be better off and be building more trust.

Eric: Well, we’ve both worked with a lot of foundations over the years and it, it occurs to me that trust in the context of. Power differentials is especially important and challenging and dangerous and all those things. And foundations are always talking about trying to build trusting relationships with their grantees because they have the power and the grantees will tell them what they need to hear, or they feel like they have to do that.

I, is there anything in particular about that relationship that you think foundations can do better and how would they do that?

Kristen: You definitely can signal to your communities that you trust them in order to get mutual trust going. So I, you and I both know this, there’s a lot of foundation practices that really suggest we don’t trust you, whether it’s the amount of details you have to give, the idea that you might put in evaluation reports that many people know their program officers do not look at.

So at that point, you’re really feeling like somebody’s just checking a box and checking up on you ’cause they don’t trust you. It’s not that we’re actually gonna really look at this evaluation and have a deep conversation about it. Again, not for everybody, but for some, I think it’s so important.

I think a lot of the times I was actually talking to Mayor Carter outta St. Paul, and he just talks about how like, constantly surrounding you in a community is how the government doesn’t trust you. You know, whether it’s having to fill out all these forms, you have to prove you need waivers so that your kids can play in after school.

Like, you can’t just come in and say, I can’t afford this, but I’d like my kid to play. And you’re just taking your words taken for it. It’s the exact opposite, right? And I think we do that a lot in our institutions as well, is we constantly signal to people like, I don’t really trust you, so I’m gonna make you jp through these hoops.

Eric: I have a feeling that the pandemic had a lot of bad effects on us, not the least of which is that it feels to me that remote work is eroding trust as well. What have you seen there?

Kristen: For trust to happen, you really have to trust what’s called access points. So I think when you’re working so remote. You don’t get to interact with people.

Our brightens tend to think of things negatively versus positively. Like we’re kind of biased in that direction. So I think that when you’re on a Zoom call and someone’s 10 minutes late, pretty soon you’re making up this whole story about that person and they disregard your time and they’re always late and they don’t really respect you.

And of course then I think trust starts to go down. So I, I think that, uou know, in a pandemic world where we in some ways are more connected than we’ve ever been, but really not in deep relational ways, and we’re not necessarily behaving in ways that improve trust, we’re in fact doing things that counter trusts

Eric: And similarly, folks who, who worked in offices and were face to face and had the lovely opportunity to have dinner together, for example, or drinks, or just spend quality time as people, not little boxes on a screen, feels to me like they, they have built trust because they’ve spent time together and folks who. Came into the workforce during the pandemic haven’t, and I think there’s a generational component there too.

Are we also seeing trust, even greater generation gaps than we generation gap has always been an issue, but it, it again, I feel like in many of these organizations I see that young people and people of a different generation are having a really hard time building the kinds of bonds you need to be effective to say the things that you need to say to manage.

How about that one? What if I’m a manager, how do I deal with my, the folks that I’m working with who may not necessarily have had those experiences?

Kristen: It, it definitely, when you talk about it, is you have to want to be in relationship with people. And so you do have to do those deep things that if you can’t do them in person, which of course is harder, but you do have to find ways that you can really be in conversation with people.

And I would say too, I was talking about these moral norms. You know, people, when they’re in organizations, they fully expect that they get to contribute and they get to participate in setting of moral norms. And I think right now we’re definitely seeing that within a generation. I. We may say, our moral norms of how we operate are this.

And they’re like we should really talk about that. Like we have it at Spitfire a lot where we’re talking about how are we gonna use AI ethically in our work. And everybody on staff believes that they get to have an input on that. And indeed they do. And I think that’s actually one of the best things about the internet when you consider it, is that.

You are able, it used to be like you couldn’t have a staff meeting if people weren’t physically there. And now you could have a town hall globally if you pick the right time zone. But it also means that people fully expect that you will both ask them to participate. And even if you don’t do exactly what they say, like they actually wanna hear back like, so what did you do with that?

And I think there’s a lot more accountability. , that needs to happen, which is again, part of that relationship building, which is to say we’re accountable to each other because we have highly participatory tools now.

Eric: Is there anything that you learned from doing this report that really surprised you?

Kristen: I guess two things probably really surprised me. One is that I always knew it about that you shouldn’t, other, other people. I mean, I knew it. I know it’s probably not right, but I mean, as a campaigner. It also is how you win campaigns. And so it definitely says you need to do deep in-group bonding without othering.

And when you think about it, that’s not so easy. Like what exactly are you coalescing around? Like the proud boys have very high trust, right? But that’s because they other the heck out of all sorts of other people. So suddenly if you say to people, what you need to do deep, in-group bonding. ‘Cause it’s super important and you have to do it in a way that doesn’t other. Your mind starts to think about like, well, how would you do that? So I think it’s just we’re, we’re really into vilifying people as opposed to things. So if you look at the Brooklyn Public Library has actually been doing a really great campaign on UNB band, and so they’ll give a library card to any kid who wants it right now so that they can have access to digital resources.

But what’s important is they’re really about bonding over a level of books and having access to what you wanna read. And they’re not going after like the moms who are trying to get books taken away. Because that’s the othering part. And the truth is, as a society, if we want higher trust, we can’t be dehanizing.

Some people, while we’re kind of complaining that they’re dehanizing us, again, we’re in a social trap, right, is when we, when we’re all dehanizing, it’s just not great. So that was a big thing. The other is just to. Try and figure out how do you build trust in a pluralistic society? Like a lot of the literature actually said the best thing would be for everybody to assimilate.

And I was like, oh, well we will not be writing that in this guide. So obviously like what the social scientists are sort of like, yeah, if you wanted it, fastest, easiest, right, but that’s totally not. Possible in the United States. It is really interesting though, is to think about, so if we’re really, really, really so different then how are we ever gonna come up with these moral norms that we’re willing to live with in a pluralistic society?

Because again, I. If we don’t trust each other enough to make these civic bargains, then they don’t hold. And not only are we all running through rent lights, as you’ve mentioned, but we’re actually not agree who won elections and we’re not abiding by some people’s laws ’cause of who made them. And that’s not a good path to be on.

Eric: Well, yeah. What an important way of taking all that work and put bringing it together apart from reading this report, uh, for, for, for an organization that is thinking about this, they hear about your work, they think to themselves, okay, we probably need to examine this question. What would you say the one most important thing an organization can do to begin to understand how to build trust?

Kristen: I would really embrace the idea that every action you take is either building it or breaking it. And so I would start to look at everything through that lens, because it might be that I have to make this really hard decision. You’re still gonna make hard decisions, and if I make it this way and explain it this way, it’s actually gonna build trust.

Because I’m gonna involve the right people and I’m gonna handle it the way I need to handle it, versus just doing it, maybe hoping nobody saw it, hoping everybody totally understood why you did it. So again, I think when you’re really going about your day, you can ask yourself again, I hope everybody goes and looks at their website and sense, is this building trust and is it worth it?

Is it worth it for the money we’re making? If it’s not. And again, who knows what that answer is, but I would love that that organizations are just asking the question. I think they’ll make different decisions that will replenish trust in our society.

Eric: Yeah, it’s a great way to think about it. And as ever, Kristen, another excellent, fabulous product outta Spitfire strategies.

And frankly, I’m happy that you did it because it gave me the excuse to. Have this conversation with you and to see you. Thank you so much for coming, Spitfire strategies of, of great friend and a terrific place and, and you’ve been such a great leader and continue to be. And, uh, just I encourage people to, to check out “Replenishing Trust, Civil Society’s Guide to Reversing the Trust Deficit,” co-written with Claire De Leon, Michael Crawford, and Diana Chun.

Kristin, thank you as ever for just being you.

Kristen: Thank you Eric. I’ll see you in five years.


Kirk: Thanks again, and we’re back. So, Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown, Mr. Brown. I think that we’re witnessing the birth of a whole new field with this conversation. You are not gonna address trust in America, and, and once again, Kristen’s done it once again, Kristen’s done it, put her finger right on the pulse of something that’s crucially important to address.

But you are not gonna reverse this just with a single publication and Spitfire doing some training on it. And, and I, and I offered to you the climate crisis, how many people are working on climate change and, and, and, and how enormous that is. Now if you wanna build trust in every dimension of America, including civil society, imagine what’s gonna have to go into that.

So, so let’s just start there. Once again. Kristen’s done it. Putting your finger on the pulse of what’s absolutely needed in creating a training resource. And, and, and, and I’ll say that the, uh, smart chart might’ve employed a number of Spitfire people. Over the years, but it employed about 1 million other communications consultants who grabbed that resource and brought it into the field.

So what do you think this trust thing it, it’s right. I mean, there’s a lot to talk about here, but, but I think we’re witnessing the birth of a whole new, a whole new field of support that’s needed.

Eric: Yeah. I didn’t realize you were going there, but I think you may be right. Kirk as usual, you have a tendency to find the, the kernel of it.

The thing of it. Uh, yes. I think there are two things that are going on. Two takeaways that I have from, from this conversation and this, this concept of trust, one of which is that you can do great things. If the folks that you are attempting to engage, if you haven’t built trust with them already, then you, you can’t just kind of walk through the door and say, here’s your stuff now.

You should trust me. And I think that goes for funders. I think it’s going right now for government funding, for example, government funding under the Inflation Reduction Act to put together infrastructure around green technology. Is reading resistance in some communities because people are like, ah, you, I don’t know you.

You say you’re gonna have all these jobs, but I don’t really trust it yet. Building that trust takes time and it’s going to be a challenge, but you can start to put legislation in place. You have to have the relationships as well in order to be able to ensure that those things can take hold. So I mean, I think for folks who are looking into this election right now or who are.

Hoping to come in and start new things. You have to understand that there may well be trust deficits that you are operating against, and you have to do whatever you can, however you can to begin to build that trust. So that’s one thing. Oh, in the, and then the other thing and then, and then go for it, which is that trust is very, very hard to earn and really easy to screw up and very, very difficult.

To regain. And so that’s, as you run your organization, as you think about how you’re engaging with whomever you engage with that, that lesson feels to me to be essential.

Kirk: Well, and you have to be deep in communications while steeped, well versed in what’s happening in the field to understand this dynamic of around trust, I think as well as Kristen and her team are, are speaking to it because, so let’s step back for a second and let’s just talk about what are we talking about here.

So first of all, trust is measurable. And it has been measured and a bunch of people have been measuring it over time, and it’s been persistently degrading public trust in public institutions, and it’s even by messenger. So you, and, and Kristen speaks to this during the interview, you can evaluate trust across a bunch of different metrics.

The person, the messenger, the institution, what have you, and across the board trust is. Is going down in America. We don’t trust each other as much anymore, and it’s been going down for decades. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, and so, so really, I’m so appreciative of Kristen and the team and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would be like, yeah, actually we’ll be partners in you because this is, this is again, this kind, like, let’s get to the edge of the envelope.

Let’s, let’s, let’s push things. Let’s get over the horizon a little bit. I really applaud them for doing this work because this is, I was trying to think what is the right metaphor to describe It’s been happening with trust in America and it’s almost like you see this disease of distrust laying claim, and, and, and I mean, you must have, certainly you’ve seen this across your field, but even in the, in the, in the philanthropic sector and, and, and, and trust, lack of trust makes everything more difficult is, is what I would say.

Eric: Well, I, I can totally relate ’cause I trusted you to do this stupid podcast and see where it got me. So now you’re, now you have to rebuild that trust with me, Kirk.

Kirk: That’s right. I, I’m starting to look at the, at the tips that Kristen and Steve has. So, let me see. I’ve, I need to walk my talk. What you gonna do?

I’m gonna put my best foot forward. I’m gonna try not to step in it.

Eric: Well, yeah, you’re right. It’s, it’s interesting. I was reading an article today about trust-based philanthropy, Mackenzie Scott just released another very, very large set of grants and people said, oh yeah, look, this is trust-based philanthropy.

She’s giving large, long-term general support grants with very, very little paperwork involved. And then there’s been a pushback. In that this isn’t tradition, this isn’t trust-based philanthropy as you would think it is, because that involves deep relationships. Mm-hmm. And long-term engagement and other things.

And this is not that. This is not to say that what, what, what she’s doing isn’t great, but let’s not conflate that too much with so-called trust-based philanthropy, which involves a long time of spending time together, engaging with each other, learning what’s working and what’s not. Saying things that are risky and not being penalized for it.

All of that kind of stuff, and therefore we, we have to begin to do this now. They’re like, there’s no time like the present to begin to, or to deepen the trust that you have with whomever you’re working with. I think the most important thing, especially in philanthropy, getting, getting candor from people, whether it’s grantees talking to their funders or funders, frankly, talking to their grantees.

Is so hard because of the power dynamic. It’s not equal. But once you get to that, once you have relationships with folks in which they say, this thing that you gave us money for isn’t working, and so therefore we would like to reprogram that money, or we would like to talk with you about how to fix it or whatever.

Once you get to that point, that’s when you really start making a difference. When you can be candid about what’s not working. And like I said, it works both ways. ’cause the funder could say, Hey look, we funded you to do this thing and it was a bad idea. We realized that the strategy is incorrect. We understand that your organization has had to change in order to meet our fabulous strategy.

That doesn’t work. And so therefore we’re gonna make that right. Well, that builds trust too. So those sorts of things are hard to do. They take time. You have to do them. ’cause otherwise we’re just kind of laying patty cake. If you ask me. I don’t wanna be too harsh, but I don’t think you’re going to nearly get where you need to go unless you can have those kinds of conversations.

Kirk: Well, and I think for a field that’s rooted in social and progressive change, this is the asymmetrical. Fight that we’re kind of in the classic fear and uncertainty and doubt strategy to slow anything down is to erode trust. Erode trust. Right. And, and so this Chris had only mentioned it briefly, the chaos agents and some of the other writing the team has done they, they, they described these bad actors who are deliberately trying to undermine trust and, and I think this is something that is a field we really have to.

To think about this, this notion that whenever we’re trying to do, to create positive change, it, it requires a certain trust that the agents, the institutions, the entities that we’re gonna lean into to support and, and create that change are gonna deliver on whatever that promise is. And so. The sea, this enormous sea, this, this engine of mistrust and disinformation and misinformation.

This is why conspiracy Kirk has had such a time at times on this podcast because it’s such, I think it’s so, it runs to the heart of our strategies that there’s an organized effort to undermine. Trust and trust in, in society and, and, and in trustful relationships. So, so this is a piece of it though, and I love that Kristen and her team have focused on civil society because civil society has an outside role maybe to play in trying to reverse some of these trends.

But I was thinking and hearing your conversation in, in reading what’s been written about this report. Is this another version of almost like deficit storytelling, of trying to like reverse deficit storytelling because for all of us, what’s the easiest? What’s the best again, it’s back to the, if it bleeds, it leads kind of thing.

Well, what’s the easiest move to make point to government, point to civil institutions and say, look how they’re selling you out. Look how they’re selling you short and in fact, for the things we care about, when you’re talking about systemic issues around equity, around race, around equality. Guess what?

That’s exactly what’s happened, we’ve talked about it on this podcast. It’s the red lines were drawn. There were these, they were lost put into place. So to me, this is the, this is the really difficult thing that’s at the heart of this is how do we put a spotlight on change in a positive way, but we’re not necessarily just gonna keep, because there’s nobody who gets up in the morning and says.

Hey, let me pitch and tell stories that, just talk about how profoundly positive it is that we’ve got a thing called civil society and government on our sides, like nobody’s pitching that work, but a lot of people pitch the other side of it, which is like, hey, let’s, let’s look and see where these things are falling down.

So this is why I think, Eric, this is such an enormous conversation in enterprise, don’t you think? I mean, who’s actually doing this work of actually trying to get out of this deficit storytelling and say actually we need to tell some positive stories about what’s really happening. ’cause in fact, in, in many cases, that’s really the more true story to tell about what’s happening.

Eric: Well, the answer to your question is Trabian Shorters. Yeah. And I, I do believe that our field has been so influenced by this understanding about asset framing is that you have to build hope and you have to paint this picture of an inevitable, better world so that people can begin to take that in. You’re right, it is so much easier to be on the no side of a ballot measure, for example.

It is so much easier to encourage nothing happening. To reject the future. To reject hope, to reject anything that is new and unknown. It is it’s easy to look back and to, yeah, to sow discontent that that makes our jobs a lot harder. But I would argue that it makes the victories that much deeper.

Hmm. That if you can help encourage your constituents, your audiences, your partners, your whomever. To engage in something new and better, and you begin to see the value and the victories and the other stuff. Now all of a sudden you’ve got a very, very strong bond. It is far stronger than the kind of the negative energy and the rejectionism that we see in much of politics.

Those things are highly transactional and I don’t think that they’re deep. I think they’re based on fear and anger or frustration or whatever, but those victories where you’re working together and you’re building towards something and you achieve it, those victories are bonds that you can build on.

You can build amazing things to move forward on, and that’s where we see things like marriage equality and other, other social issues where you’re seeing like a kind of a generational change in a very short period of time, or relatively short period of time. Or maybe that that’s not even it. The, the kind of, the arc of it was a long time, but the tipping point happened quickly.

And once that happens, then all of a sudden you have great bonds that you’re building on. One more thing that I would say is that, and, and this is something that Kristen alludes to in our conversation, is that many organizations probably think that they have more trust with their partners and constituents and whoever’s than they actually have.

Yeah. Right. And whatever organization you’re at or whatever work that you’re doing, I think testing that proposition. Is really important. You should never asse that you have trust, that you can’t prove that you have. And finding the way to have the kinds of conversations in which you can reveal things that you need to reveal so that you can learn to be honest and more connected, I think is really important.

You should always do it no matter what. And that’s something that I think every organization can do is this kind of trust, whatever you wanna call it, checklist or whatever it’s referred to.

Kirk: Well, and this is Kristen’s genius, right? Because she’s able to take these really difficult topics, these enormously complicated topics and break them down at these crucial elements.

And I love that discussion at the end when the, when like, Hey, what’s the most important thing you can do? And Kristen was like actually. It’s kind of binary. Everything you’re doing is either building or breaking trust. So start there. Think about whether or not you’re building or breaking trust.

And then I loved, I loved the trust trio that she rented. Give people a fair shake. Make sure you’re competent. And you hope and then this publication is full of steps, tangible, specific steps that leaders can take to help foster an environment of trust. And so I love always that part of Spit Star’s work.

And this is why they create whole fields. You know, Kristen doesn’t just write the report and then, then she does her trainings. No, she sparks a whole field because by making it so clear, she builds capacity, which has been her goal from the get go. And so she’s not just gonna build capacity in these organizations.

It actually. Learn these lessons and, and, and work and behave this way in a, in a more thoughtful way. But she’s gonna foster a whole cadre of trainers to come in and help support all this too. I think that’s what’s gonna happen with this Eric.

Eric: Well Kristen just has so much, I dunno what you wanna call it, currency legitimacy.

Yeah. In our field, she really is kind of the godhead for a lot of folks like me. And it may sound trite, but if, if she says it. It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing. I could totally trust her because she’s been around so long. She’s so smart and so creative, and she really, really understands how you make change.

And this is a, a really good resource. It’s, it’s such important work. And as you say, she’s hit on this. Really important topic that I think we kind of give short shrift to, and, and we can’t, if we really, if we wanna succeed.

Kirk: And it’s been measured, trust is going down in America. Imagine what happens if we start living in America where trust is being restored and replenished.

And Kristen spoke to it. It’s gonna restore faith in our democracy. It’s gonna help. Is gonna help clear the way for additional avenues for social change, whatever that’s gonna be, it’s gonna make people feel more as opposed to less included. The consequences of rebuilding trust are enormous and it, this is where I go back to, this might be the most significant topic we’ve ever addressed on this podcast because every category of conversation that we’ve had will fit underneath this rubric of trust.

Everything we’re trying to do, if you, there’s more trust, it’s gonna be easier to get those things done. That’s what I think at least.

Eric: Well, I think you’re right. I mean, you just look at it. People don’t trust that the economy that’s improving is improving. Yes, exactly right. They don’t trust their own lying eyes.

Yeah. And I think that really speaks to a potential for a true breakdown and arresting that is essential. If, as you say, if we’re gonna be able to move forward and, and build a better future, we have to let people begin to hope again and begin to feel like the things that. The green sprouts that they’re seeing are actually gonna become forests.

Kirk: So what’s your prognosis? What? What would you say if civil society adopts the steps that Kristen’s putting forward and the recommendations embraces wholeheartedly the recommendations for how to. Build trust. Facilitate trust make course corrections. If, if trust isn’t there. If civil society as a whole started embracing this notion of you’re either building trust or you’re breaking trust, and civil society said we are gonna explicitly try to build trust, what impact do you think that could have?

Like, like what change do you think we can make if this work is done and done effectively?

Eric: Well, for, for one thing, I feel like it’s a prerequisite. It’s not the end goal. It is the beginning thing. Mm-Hmm. It’s what you build everything on. It allows you for a lot more opportunity for creativity. It allows you to try and fail things.

It just gives you so many more opportunities to succeed. And also when things go bad and things always go bad. Nothing ever goes the way you think it’s going to. You have to be able to fall back on these, these trust relationships in order to learn from and move forward because either you’re building or you’re breaking.

Yeah, and and I think that, so that’s a starting point. I don’t think it’s an end goal. It’s absolutely a starting point. Without it, we end up with these very refracted and disconnected and disjointed and highly transactional everything, whether they’re campaigns, initiatives. Strategies, you name it, uh, it’s really, really hard to build for the long term if you don’t have trust.

Kirk: Well, and, so can I offer version 2.0 of this? ’cause there’s gonna be a series of things here that are gonna be required, but I would love to see. To your point about the economy’s improving, but people aren’t able to say it even though they’re experiencing it. I’d love to see, and, and Kristen pointed out that there’s been a ton of research in this field, and so the first thing they, that her, she and her team did is actually creating a landscape assessment of all that’s been done so that she could use that to guide their work and their thinking on this topic.

This process a better understanding of what’s happening in the information landscape that’s actually affecting this whole conversation around trust and what, what are we hearing, what are we thinking and why? What’s sticking and what’s not, and why? And this is something we’ve talked about and maybe we can have some folks in the podcast to address this piece, but this part that I, I think we’re really struggling with as a field right now.

How do we know what’s. Out there? What’s, what’s connecting, how is it connecting? Where is it coming from? What’s the information people are seeing? I feel like we’re in kind of a rudderless period almost right now in terms of like, how do we understand communication is actually working? What is the information that’s flowing through?

Because these disconnects, these disconnects between the clear evidence on one hand and then what people will report and say they’re actually seeing in their lives what accounts for that disconnect. And I don’t know that we quite understand that, or at least I don’t. So I’d love to talk to PE to people that actually, that really get that.

One last thing I’d love to talk about before we go, because this is a subtext in this conversation with Kristen, is that Kristen is affecting a transition at Spitfire where she’s basically fake retired. So she’s handed over leadership to a very competent leader who’s been on the podcast and now Kristen is, is doing that thing where she’s focused on work that continues to draw her while she’s facilitating leadership, change the significance of that decision, the significance of the work that went into making that possible for Spitfire and modeling what it looks like to create a transition so that there’s new leaders that are gonna come to, for you, worked for a foundation that did this systematically and programmatically.

People work for seven years and then they leave. And eight. Okay. Whatever the number is. And, and I, it, it’s a very tricky thing, right? Because is it, should it be seven, should it be eight? Should it be 10? Should it happen at all? Who knows? But we know that as a field, we need this steady turning over of talent in terms of leadership and, and all those kinds of things.

And so for Kristen to be able to actually, basically recreate her position. Still in the context of an organization that she created and that she loves while she’s creating opportunities for others to come forward and lead. And it’s even in this docent it’s not just Kristen’s work. You know, Kristen is working here alongside her co-authors, Claire and Michael and Diana, creating opportunities for other leaders to come forward and have their time in the sun.

It’s again, Kristen is modeling something, talking about trust. This is how you build, trust you. You don’t say what you’re gonna do. You show what you’re gonna do with your actions. I just, I just think it’s a really significant thing that Kristen’s doing and it needs to be applauded. I.

Eric: Yeah, I, I totally agree.

We, we need to be building, I mean, it’s not just building a bench, but it’s, it’s sharing space with folks who can contribute and like what the hell do we know?

Kirk: So, let me bring, everybody else knows. Let me bring it back to the first question. Is this trust the most difficult issue we’ve ever discussed in this podcast?

Eric: Oh, huh. I don’t know, maybe. No, it’s, yeah. I mean, it’s easy in that you say, yes, we need it. It’s not one of those things like, huh, what should we do? We should build trust. It may be the single hardest thing to actually do to succeed at. Mm. So yeah, no, and yes is the answer to your excellent question. There you go.

Kirk: Well, what a terrific contribution. And Kristen and your team at Set Fire, thank you again for putting this work out there. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, thank you for supporting it. So replenishing trust, civil Society’s guide to reversing the trust deficit. Kristen Grimm, Claire De Leon, Michael Crawford, and Diana Chun of Spitfire.

Thank you for birthing a whole field, a whole new movement. We look forward to seeing where it goes. And Eric, once again, you’ve done it and that’s why our podcast is doing well, because you’re bringing great people here, having great conversations so that they should be heard, and I’m glad people are listening to it.

Eric: Well, I’m glad people are tuning into the Spitfire channel.

Kirk: There you go. So we’ll be back next time on the Spitfire channel, someone else from Spitfire. That’s great. Well, thanks everybody. We’ll see you next time on Let’s Hear It.


Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…

Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.

Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music.

Eric: Our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.

Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at

Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.

Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.

Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.

Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.