Reinforcing the Foundation of Trust


Implementing a Written Plan to Support Leadership Integrity

By: Michael Martin, J.D., CPA
ECFA President and CEO

If you just discovered that your home had a major fracture in its foundation and was sinking into the ground, would you be concerned in that moment about a fresh coat of paint on the shutters? I highly doubt it!

Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a little paint to enhance your home’s curb appeal, but it would be wise to ensure that the foundation is solid before focusing on surface-level issues.

We all know that a strong level of trust with the donors and the communities that we serve is foundational to fulfilling our missions. It’s why we devote so much attention to trustbuilding practices like making effective use of charitable gifts, operating with appropriate transparency, and communicating program impact.

But is it possible that while we’re busy focusing on these important trust issues, we could be overlooking a potential crack in the very foundation of trust in our organizations?  1

Leadership Integrity Is Critical to Organizational Trust.

The tone of integrity set by an organization’s top leader is a critical, foundational element in promoting a healthy culture and environment. Equally, one of the greatest risks to a nonprofit or church today is a moral failure by its leader, as we’ve unfortunately seen in all too many instances recently. Not only are the financial and other operations of an organization significantly impacted by the leader’s integrity, but the public’s trust and the very mission of an organization can be at risk when there is a breakdown in leadership integrity.

ECFA conducted a special survey in December 2021, inviting its member organizations for their reactions to the growing trend of reported leadership integrity failures. This survey provoked a flood of comments and insights from nearly 800 board chairs and senior leaders (CEOs or senior pastors).

One of the key findings was that 94% of board chairs and senior leaders agreed that moral failures of Christian ministry leaders are having a negative impact on donor trust.

And according to the same survey:

  • Only 57% of nonprofit CEOs indicated that the ministry’s board had implemented a written plan regarding character expectations for the leader.
  • Even worse, only 15% said they had any type of written plan to support the care of the leader as a whole person.
  • There is an apparent disconnect between nonprofit CEOs and board chairs even when it comes to more informal support for the leader’s integrity through periodic conversations initiated by a board member to check in with the leader. While 76% of nonprofit board chairs say they engage in these types of conversations to support the leader, only 55% of nonprofit CEOs report that being the case.

This survey affirms the critical connection between leadership integrity and organizational trust. It also sheds light on the lack of intentional practices in place within nonprofits and churches to support leadership integrity.

And keep in mind, these are findings within the community of ministries that are ECFAaccredited that already place a high value on operating with integrity and accountability. It’s painful to imagine what the results could have been across the broader nonprofit sector!

It is also noteworthy that in dozens of open-ended comments responding to the same survey, most board chairs and senior leaders expressed eagerness to implement helpful practices within their organizations to support leadership integrity. Many simply didn’t know where to start… so that’s where we’ll turn next.

How Can We Better Care for the Integrity of Nonprofit Leaders?

As we begin to think about how we can practically face these challenges, it’s important to first put on our risk management hat and acknowledge reality. We must reject the “this could never happen here” mentality. We hope and pray that’s the case, but as experience has demonstrated, these issues have found their way into the lives of many leaders and organizations that never expected it.

After acknowledging this reality, an organization’s board and senior leader must embrace their unique roles and responsibilities and find the courage to take appropriate action together for the good of the leader and for the good of the church or nonprofit.

As author Brian Kreeger puts it in describing the need for leaders and the communities surrounding them to take courageous, proactive steps to prevent leadership falls: “Onlookers don’t know what to do, or they don’t have the courage to act. Or they may sit back and tell themselves that someone should do something, not realizing they are that person.” 2

At ECFA, we recommend that a wise place to begin taking action is to implement a written plan to support leadership integrity. The goal of the plan should not be legalistic or adversarial, but it should be adopted in a spirit of supporting the integrity of the leader, in order to promote a healthy culture and environment and to reduce the risk of moral failure.

A written plan to support leadership integrity also doesn’t need to be overly complicated. To get started, it could be as simple as incorporating three basic elements into the plan:

  1. Commitment by the leader. Include a commitment from the leader to uphold certain character expectations in his or her life and leadership, as established by the organization and agreed upon by the leader.
  2. Commitment by the board. Include a commitment by the board (or committee) for the organization to provide appropriate support for the leader in upholding the agreedupon character expectations. The most effective plans would not only address the leader’s outward behavior but also give proper attention to the leader’s well-being as a whole person by proactively caring for the spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, relational, and other needs of the leader.
  3. Plan implementation and review. After the plan is formally approved by the board or committee, make sure it doesn’t just sit on the shelf. The plan should be reviewed between the leader and a board representative at least annually.

Finally, as you begin creating a written plan to support leadership integrity, remember “3 C’s” to make the plan as effective as possible:

  • Caring. Develop the plan from a posture of genuine care and concern for the leader. Otherwise, the leader will be less likely to be fully invested in the process. Let’s not forget that there are unique burdens and challenges that accompany the leadership role that can create extraordinary stress. And the nonprofit and church leaders whom we so greatly respect (and if we’re honest, sometimes put on the proverbial pedestal) are human beings just like the rest of us with their fair share of imperfections which should be met with a posture of understanding and care for their humanity.
  • Collaborative. While this will technically become the organization’s plan to support the leader’s integrity, it is important to make it a collaborative process between the board and the leader to ensure that the actual, individual needs of the leader are addressed, and the organization can provide the best level of care and support possible.
  • Customized. Although referencing similar written plans in other organizations may provide a helpful template, the most effective written plans to support leadership integrity are those customized to meet the needs of your leader and your organization, not just cookie cutter or copied and pasted from another church or nonprofit. The plan should be customized based on the unique nature of the leader’s role, the responsibilities of their position, life stage, the leader’s strengths and weaknesses, and other personal factors.

Reinforcing the Foundation of Trust

Organizations implementing written plans to support leadership integrity is by no means a comprehensive solution to this complex challenge, and it won’t prevent all instances of leadership integrity failures. However, we humbly hope and pray at ECFA that even this first, courageous step forward in properly caring for the integrity of our leaders will help to restore nonprofits and churches to a healthier state and reinforce this major fracture in the foundation of trust before it’s too late.

1 We are seeing a major crack in the foundation of trust as the public’s confidence in nonprofits is declining to dangerous lows. Consider, for example, Gallup’s 2022 study on “Confidence in Institutions,” which reports that trust in the church has declined to an all-time low. Just 31% of Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the church. This is 6% lower than just one year ago and less than half of what trust levels were in religious organizations when Gallup began this poll in the early 1970s. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at New Low,” July 5, 2022, Even more sobering as we look toward the future, similar studies focused on generational giving trends indicate that the younger the donor is, the more likely they are to voice skepticism. See Infinity Concepts and Grey Matter Research, The Generation Gap: Evangelical Giving Preferences, p. 13-14 (Feb. 2022), available at That’s not to say that every donor in America today lacks trust in every church and nonprofit organization. However, it does reflect the reality of a society that is increasingly skeptical and one in which organizations will have to be even more intentional in operating by high integrity standards and overcoming negative perceptions to demonstrate their trustworthiness.

2 Brian Kreeger, “Avoiding a Leadership Fall,” Christian Leadership Alliance Outcomes Online, Feb. 15, 2022, (emphasis added).


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.