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It’s a Matter of Trust: How to Keep Members Believing in You

Our recent guest on the Member Engagement Show podcast, KiKi L’Italien, has thoughts on the value of trust for associations, and how it needs to be cultivated, not just built once.  


KiKi L’Italien has guided nonprofits and corporations like Optica, American Red Cross National Headquarters, QVC, and the American Insititute of Architects.   

She’s currently a senior consultant with Tecker International and is an industry thought leader in management strategy and cultivating communities of trust. KiKi also created and hosts Association Chat, with multi-format content that reaches 72,000 individuals a month.   

She’s been publicly recognized several times including Cvent’s 2021 ‘20 Event Professionals You Should be Following’ and BizTech Magazine’s ‘30 Nonprofit IT Influencers to Follow in 2021’.   

Recently, KiKi joined us for an episode of “The Member Engagement Show” (full episode below) where she shared her thoughts on the value of trust for associations, and how it needs to be cultivated, not just built once.


 Why Associations are Re-evaluating Member Trust  

Technology had already forced associations to adapt quickly, without much time to figure out if they were making the right decisions. Then came the pandemic pause when we questioned everything. So many things were up in the air our human brains were saying, “What can I trust? What’s stable?”  

Associations re-examined their value proposition. If there wasn’t a great connection to the membership, or if all the value was in one annual meeting, they started asking, “How can we make it so our members trust what we’re providing them?” Trust was especially an issue for associations who saw members as just an audience to be sold.  

“For those that knew better and put their members first, they were wise. For those that didn’t, they were saying we don’t know if this is necessarily a fit for our members, but we’re going to make X amount of dollars. Their members’ response might have been, ‘I don’t know if you’re for me anymore.’” 

How Conflict of Interest Threatens Trust 

Beyond the legal definition, conflict of interest can mean an association is making decisions that aren’t good for the whole, just for their bottom line. We hear the common refrain of “no money, no mission,” but you can’t choose money over mission. 

Members will make their decisions based on perception.  

“If the members believe the association and editors are making choices based on who’s giving them money vs. the best information is available, that’s conflict of interest. Sometimes you can have both money and the best info, but the quality of information must be topnotch. If it looks to members like pay to play, they won’t trust your association anymore.”  

Why You Should Have a Partnerships Expert 

Having the right fit between partners who pay and who also provide the very best information and value to members is a beautiful thing. Often, partners will have the best research and most cutting-edge data because they have the budget to generate it.  

If you don’t have someone who’s truly knowledgeable, who understands the association, the industry, what the partner can bring, and the value to look out for, you run into problems.  

“Sometimes associations hire people from the industry just to vet the information to make sure it’s high quality, because not everyone will know that level of specification.”  

Building vs. Cultivating Trust 

You don’t build trust so much as you cultivate it. You have to continually work at it, because even if you get it, it’s no guarantee you’ll always have it. It’s all the little things you do along the way that cultivate trust. If you say watch for our newsletter every Wednesday, does your newsletter come out every Wednesday?  

When members grow disenchanted, they rarely think of it in terms of trust. But if they expect something to happen and it doesn’t, they make this internal decision you don’t really mean what you say. Maybe they give you another chance, maybe they don’t. 

If you do make a mistake, acknowledge it, then do the next right thing. It’s like a diet—if you get it right 90% of the time, you’re probably going to be successful.  

Cultivating a Community of Trust as a Manager 

You must create an environment where members can talk to each other with a safe level of vulnerability, or you’re going to struggle. You should be thinking about more than just how to get engagement and sharing metrics up. Your job is to foster community and the key is curiosity.  

“If you had to wear a word around your neck for a while and focus on that one idea a long time, getting curious and asking more questions is a more natural approach for people. People feel more natural in that kind of engagement.” 

Are you working hard trying to look and sound smart, complicating things to make it sound like you really know what you’re talking about? Mistake. Nobody cares how smart you are. They care about getting understandable and helpful information from people they trust.  

You can demonstrate your good intentions, which is a trust-builder, by being relentlessly curious about what’s most important to your members.  

The Best Ways to Communicate for Trust 

If you aren’t good at every form of media, or don’t have the capacity to do every form of media, join the club. But you have strengths, and you should play to them. Figure out what will be best received for your particular audience that you’re good at and go with that. 

Whatever you decide to do, be cautious about finite promises, like doing a live video every Tuesday at 7pm. You might not always be able to make it, and a commitment is a commitment.  

“You should buy yourself a ring and be like this is my commitment I’m going to write for my blog or newsletter or do my podcast. If you don’t have the variability in your schedule or don’t have the resources, you can’t make that commitment.”  

Win Trust by Paying Attention to Digital Body Language 

Did you ever have somebody use a period as a signoff in their digital communications and wonder if they were mad at you, or hated you? 

“There’s this weird dance we do at the beginning of a digital communication transaction where the first few emails, you’re trying to figure out if it’s okay to use an emoji or exclamation mark.”  

Play the mirroring game where you watch what the other person does then take your cues from them. Again, this is all about making people comfortable with you and cultivating trust. 

Err on the side of caution while you’re getting to know someone. But remember cultivating trust involves exhibiting humanity and vulnerability. If you come across as too robotic, you become background noise.  

Would YOU Trust You? 

To start cultivating trust from others, we have to first look at what we’re doing in our own personal communication. Would you trust you? Are you keeping your promises? Sometimes people can tell when you yourself don’t believe what you’re telling them.  

“If you have a trust breakdown, it’s usually in one of those two areas, character or competency.” 

Demonstrate through your actions they can trust your character and intentions. And demonstrate with the information you provide that your curiosity and competency can be trusted. 

Beth Arritt

Beth’s marketing experience encompasses more than twenty-five years of marketing strategy and member/customer engagement in various industries, including puzzles and games, training, education and aviation.

In addition to marketing, Beth has worked in event management and web development, wearing a variety of hats in different positions. She has also been an adjunct professor of marketing at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.

Beth received a Bachelor of Science degree in Merchandising from James Madison University, a Certificate in Event Management from The George Washington University, and a Masters of Business Administration/Marketing from the University of Phoenix. She has earned numerous awards for her marketing, including two Top Digital Marketer of the Year awards.