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Trust and voluntary organisations: three theoretical approaches

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The notion of trust is one of the most topical issues in current social science theorising covering such diverse approaches as transaction costs economics, social capital, and cognitive sociology. In different ways and for different purposes, these approaches address the role of voluntary and nonprofit organisations, although, as this paper argues, much of this thinking remains sketchy and underdeveloped. At the same time, the notion of trust has long played a central role in the economics of non-profit organisations, yet these developments have not been fully linked with the wider effort mentioned above. The purpose of this paper is to explore what non-profit approaches can offer trust theories, and vice versa. We first set out to explicate major approaches to trust in economics, sociology and political science, using the non-profit or voluntary organisation as a focal point. We then assess the various approaches in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, and, finally, identify key areas for theoretical advancement in an effort to enrich current theorising. In particular, we point to the social movement literature, the social psychology of trust, and recent thinking about civil society as fruitful avenues for theoretical advancement in our understanding this phenomenon.

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