March 03, 2014
(Mark Rosenman is emeritus professor at Union Institute & University and a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. He lives in Washington, D.C., from where he drew many of the examples of the national problems cited below.)
Self-serving and dishonest actions in both the public and private sectors are severely testing the trust and confidence of Americans. That's a problem for government, for courts and the criminal justice system, for corporations and business leaders, and, yes, for the nonprofit sector.
It's a much more significant problem, however, for the larger society. Are we destined to slide further toward the pernicious levels of corruption so prevalent in other parts of the world? Can the already strained fabric of American society hold as growing numbers of public, private, and charity officials scramble to profit, legally and otherwise, from their positions? What happens when the fundamental American belief in fairness is undermined by declining confidence in the institutions we all rely on?
Make no mistake, confidence in our institutions is declining. Since the early 1970s, those of us who have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in our institutions, including banks, newspapers, and the medical establishment, has fallen dramatically – in some cases by more than 50 percent. Confidence in religion, the Supreme Court, schools, organized labor, and the presidency has fallen by 25 percent or more, while fewer than 25 percent of us have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in big business.
Charitable organizations don't fare so well, either. Following a precipitous drop more than ten years ago, a recent survey found that over a third of Americans have "not too much" or no confidence in nonprofits. Meanwhile, Congress's approval rating has fallen to an all-time low of 10 percent.
Interestingly, the few institutions that have shown gains in public confidence include the military and the police and criminal justice system. But while the military is the most respected of American institutions, a series of recent incidents is beginning to take a toll. They include a scandal involving two Navy officers and a senior agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, and a series of misconduct charges leveled at senior military officers for abusing their positions and accepting illegal gifts. His confidence shaken, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has demanded a broader investigation.