Many philanthropic foundations put “dignity” into the heart of their mission statements and organizational values. Ford FoundationDubai CaresUNICEF 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.

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.

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.”

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.

Read the full article about advancing dignity by Tom Wein and Ruth Levine at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.