BIG Philanthropy

What will be philanthropy’s “new story?”

Dignified Philanthropy June 23, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — cjcallen @ 9:26 pm

Effective Philanthropy, Strategic Philanthropy and other terms have taken center stage in the current discourse about foundation practice. I find myself wondering if those terms really capture what people – policymakers, nonprofits and the general public – might want to get from philanthropy, i.e., is what would they view as the sector’s true and proper contribution to civil society? Inspired by lyrics of a song by Irish folks singer Luka Bloom in which he chimes about the power of simple dignity. In that song referring to the quintessential case of dignity I action that we all know: Miss Rosa Parks.

What is it about simple dignity that has the power to transform?
Dignity is a concept intricately lined to another one: respect. As a former student of philosophy, I also find myself revisiting Kant who identified three types of respect, the third “reverentia” is the one we might most associate with dignity – especially in a social change context. This has been described as “the special feeling of profound awe and respect we have in the presence of something extraordinary or sublime, a feeling that both humbles and uplifts. On Kant’s account the moral law and people who exemplify it in morally worthy actions elicit reverentia from us, for we experience the law or its exemplification as something that always triumphs our inclinations in determining our wills.” (Excerpted from the “Respect” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philanthropy, first published September, 2004; substantive revision, June, 2007)

What is Dignified Philanthropy?
Let’s suppose – just suppose –that philanthropy organized itself in a fashion that placed the highest value on dignity, thus, working diligently to maximize reverentia. This would mean that egos would have to take a backseat as simple dignity moves center change. How might this change the way in which foundation, for instance, work? When I gaze into my magical crystal ball, I see foundations developing authentic relationships with grant seekers, reaching out intentionally to engage diverse communities and working collaboratively with each other and the other players in civil society – government and the for-profit business sector. Foundations would build relationships with policymakers, media and the general public to help demystify the field. I see foundations engaging in more risk-taking and sharing their failures as part and parcel of being thriving learning organizations. Foundations would of course move with strong purpose and intentionality – the context for Rosa parks actions were certainly purposeful but above all, foundations would remind themselves constantly of the heart equation in the work – that passion and compassion must lead and inform how they think of their roles and achieve their desired impact in the word. Through this approach that connects “soul to role” foundations will get the reverentia they deserve.

Just a few initial thoughts – I will continue mulling over this concept. What do you think?


2 Responses to “Dignified Philanthropy”

  1. Hi there!
    I agree that dignity and respect are a must for successful philanthropy and I like your expression “soul to role”. Like you I have undertaken various “due diligences” and one does sometimes feel that the “heart of the matter” is lost in all this “efficiency”. I am however quite keen on strategic philanthropy (albeit I probably have my own methodology and ideas) because I want to use it as a tool. I believe identifying passion and compassion correctly and working closely with donor and recipient, with dignity and respect going both ways, is in fact the way to be truly successful and achieve impact (apart from the fact that it is the only decent thing to).

    I stumbled upon an online film by Peter Brock, undergraduate student from Skidmore College. Peter’s film identifies some issues in philanthropy and international development. The film is an interview with young people in Sierra Leone and their opinion of international philanthropy. Some of the key issues brought up in the film and that I feel are important are, and that seem to reflect what you are saying are:

    •Respect and accountability is a two-way street
    •Dignity and personal involvement is key
    •We all share a common humanity.

    To see the film

    Looking forward to your further thoughts.


  2. cjcallen Says:

    Hi there, thanks for your thoughtful and spot on comments.
    I agree that strategic philanthopy and dignified philanthropy are not mutually exclusive terms but rather part and parcel of the same package.

    I will check out this film and offer my two cents on the blog.

    I look forward to hearing more musings from folks out there about the concept and practice of reverentia in philanthropy today as well as its potential to shape its future.

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