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The Philanthropic Community Must Lead on Advancing Dignity — And Here’s How

Date: March 23, 2023

Tom Wein

Director, Dignity Initiative, IDinsight

Ruth Levine

CEO, IDinsight

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Many philanthropic foundations put “dignity” into the heart of their mission statements and organizational values. Ford Foundation, Dubai Cares, UNICEF and UNOPS have created and funded initiatives to affirm human dignity, helping to build and advance the dignity agenda. Wellspring Philanthropic Fund has prioritized “expanding the voices, dignity and interests of the most marginalized communities.” Porticus invites us to “imagine a just and sustainable future where human dignity flourishes.” Pam Omidyar has written that “when humanity is united, we can act together to create a powerful force for human dignity.” The list goes on.

At IDinsight’s Dignity Initiative, we are extremely encouraged by the interest in advancing initiatives that aim to respect people’s dignity. But what does this mean in the day-to-day work of developing grantmaking priorities, selecting grantee organizations, and allocating a grants budget? What is the particular role that foundations can play in advancing the dignity agenda and what are some concrete steps they can take to make good on the promise intrinsic to the word “dignity”?

In this post, we share how foundations can adopt dignity-focused practices in three areas: in their internal culture, in their relationships with potential grantees, and in the grantees they eventually select.

Why should we care so much about dignity?

We define dignity as “the moral worth or status of all persons.” It is inherent, unalienable, and unearned.

Respecting people’s dignity leads to substantial and wide-ranging impacts. Our research shows that respectful interactions lead to greater empowerment and wellbeing for individuals, deeper engagement with and more satisfaction with programs they need, and benefits for society at large through better functioning democratic spheres, greater cooperation, and reduced conflict.

Our research further shows that dignity matters to people all over the world, but that people frequently feel disrespected by governments, within markets, and by social sector organizations. A study by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) with six different refugee populations found consistent experiences of disrespect. In our recent study with Kenyans from the informal neighborhood of Kibera, 71 percent identified at least one social group who are not usually respectful of their dignity — from NGO workers to medical staff to police officers.

Meanwhile, as our field wrestles with current power asymmetries and historical abuses, the dignity agenda offers a powerful way forward. IDinsight continues to build dignity into its own operations and in our experience it has been a fruitful way to introduce and make progress on these hard topics in a way that keeps the focus on the needs and experiences of those with the least power.

Philanthropy’s Special Opportunity and Challenge

In a recent article on dignity on the CEP blog, Esté Beerwinkel challenged givers that “it’s crucial to keep the end grantee in mind.” We think that foundations have a special opportunity to pioneer a focus on dignity, showing the way for governments, multilaterals, and other actors to follow. That is because foundations have more freedom than other funders when it comes to their procurement rules and face fewer political pressures, allowing them to fund more nimbly and to build relationships less freighted with historical baggage.

Philanthropy acts at the right level of scale and risk to innovate new ways of funding programs and processes that meet people where they are and treat them as they ought to be treated. Philanthropy can and must focus on the how of giving. As the experts in field-building, they can marshal a sector that serves this goal, with the freedom to showcase the organizations who are delivering work in the right way. That is the unique contribution we hope philanthropy will make. Below we share some specific steps foundations can take.

Concrete Steps to Advance Dignity

1. Start with internal culture.

Dignity-centered work proceeds from an internal culture that genuinely treasures dignity as a value. IDinsight recently profiled five organizations that have wrestled with cultures of dignity. Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj, told us in that work that it starts with a fundamental challenge to organizational and sectoral assumptions: “we are trying to actually challenge the age-old tradition of thinking of powerless people who are victims, victim beneficiaries.” The leaders of those organizations told us that it is possible to fashion cultures of dignity — but only when external tweaks to practice to be more respectful are backed by a deeper culture of dignity, repeatedly reinforced by management.

This is feedback we have taken to heart at IDinsight. We work with decision makers across development and philanthropy, and as part of that seek to advance field-shaping ideas. The Dignity Initiative comes under that. We have built tools and conducted research. Yet we are also committed to being an accountable and exemplary institution to host this work. Accordingly, we have worked to make real changes to our culture, with recent work on leadership sustainability, values, and how we relate to both those we interview and temporary field staff. (For more on this topic, see 2023’s Dignity Report.)

2. Place priority on dignity in relationships with potential grantees.

To be a grantee, speaking to a funder, is often to face profound power imbalances. The Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace network have reflected on how even the most well-meaning philanthropists can inadvertently leave potential grantees feeling bruised and frustrated. Data from the CEP grantee perception report highlights the largely positive news that these burdens do not fall any heavier on female applicants than male, while noting worse experiences for several minority ethnic groups and for gender non-conforming individuals. The recent open letter by the Black Feminist Fund says bluntly that we need “to confront philanthropy’s broken promises and practices of the past.”

To build a more respectful relationship with their grantees, program staff can keep in mind three pathways: ensuring that people feel seen (recognition), have choices and a meaningful chance to consent (agency) and, especially, work on reducing power asymmetries (equality).

Through long term relationships, foundations are already fairly good at helping grantees feel seen. The real opportunity comes in the domains of equality and agency.

While eliminating power differentials between grantee and donor is likely impossible, the relationship should proceed from a place of honesty and reflection on the position of power funders have. Other sources of inequality of privilege can be addressed, as philanthropy recruits from a wider pool than it once did. Even as those power differentials persist, foundations can work to ensure potential grantees are given opportunities to provide feedback and to shape foundation’s measurement processes.

Above all, they can give clear choices, making certain that grants are led by a demand from the grantee to do the work, and creating the space to set the path as a trusted partner, not a subcontractor. Finally, foundations can help honor the consent of the grantee by providing ‘offboarding’ processes, bridging grants and introductions that allow grantees a realistic route to walking away from a partnership that is not serving their needs.

3. Select grantees that themselves institute dignity-focused practices.

Potential grantees themselves are sometimes from privileged groups. They have to be, to achieve the status of being in the room in the first place, as the Nigerian-American philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò has described. When it comes to dignity, our particular attention should always be on those with the least power. Since it is the grantee organizations that are directly serving those failed by larger systems, the responsibility of foundation program staff is to select grantees that are respecting the dignity of those they serve and continuously seeking to do better.

The dignity agenda points us towards those teams that are taking the long, hard road of doing work in the right way — grounded in their context, thoughtful about their power, and learning as they go. IDinsight recently collaborated with The Life You Can Save as they think through how to include dignity in their charity recommendations. Out of that partnership, we have published the Dignity Self-Assessment Tool, which points to four areas in which organizations can assess whether they are prioritizing dignity: why this program meets a priority for the served population, how the organization manages its external interactions, how the organization manages its internal culture and people, and the organization’s commitment to listening and learning.

Grantees that are practicing dignity should be able to answer the following four questions:

  • Priority: How do they know that their service is something people in the area are calling for and value?
  • External interactions: What specific and concrete steps have been taken to ensure that the organization treats its beneficiaries in the way they would wish to be treated?
  • Internal culture & people: What specific and concrete steps have been taken to ensure that the organization treats its staff in the way they would wish to be treated?
  • Listening & learning: How does the organization know that they are behaving in a way that is respectful?

Philanthropic foundations have a unique opportunity to build the field of dignity. They can fashion themselves into accountable and exemplary institutions when it comes to dignity, through their internal culture and external relations. They can expect it of grantees and build that expectation into the proposal process. They can help their grantees reflect on these ideas and make the changes they need to meet the dignity standard. They can uphold the idea in their values, communications, and rhetoric. And they can support and fund the infrastructure that any big idea needs to succeed, ensuring that the right evidence, tools, and support are available to the whole sector as they come to realize the urgency of the dignity agenda.

Tom Wein is the Director of the Dignity Initiative at IDinsight. Ruth Levine is the outgoing CEO at IDinsight, and will shortly take up the post of Vice President, Just Societies, and Chief Learning Officer at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. IDinsight works to improve lives with data and evidence. Views expressed here represent those of the authors.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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