I am often asked what kind of “profession” is philanthropy that you have devoted an entire school to it? I first say that it is much more than a profession and that everyone is in some way a philanthropist who helps others or participates in “voluntary action for the public good.” But after I recently spent a few days on Capitol Hill with one of our nation’s largest nonprofits, I have started to think of philanthropy as the dignity business.
Last month I joined our partner, The Salvation Army, to speak to legislators about our latest deep dive into the Human Needs Index (HNI) that looked at elevated need in rural America. It was remarkable to see the immediate responsiveness of our legislators to the good work done by The Salvation Army in every state and district.
We saw the value placed on this large, respected organization that is in place ready to care for the dispossessed and to do so “without judgement.” Indeed, that is the history of the organization as it began in 19th century England ministering to the outcasts other denominations would not embrace: “Thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, and drunkards” as the official history states.
The recent hurricanes were on everyone’s mind but our representatives and their staffs also wanted to better understand the state of our citizenry as captured by the Human Needs Index. The Index provides a timely supplement to other measures of poverty and material welfare by analyzing the amount of services The Salvation Army provides in every single zip code in our country.
It shows an overall picture of how our fellow citizens are doing by measuring how much they are calling on services such as clothing, food, housing, energy, and medical assistance from The Salvation Army.
The Index offers us a snapshot into the state of dignity in our country. Every person has dignity by definition (being worthy of honor or respect) and is thus worthy of being helped through the care and concern of efforts such as those marshalled by The Salvation Army. Without the provision of these necessities, it is difficult for people to assert their dignity in the sense of claiming their rightful respect and worth in their own eyes as well as those of others.
Churches, social service organizations, schools, and political advocacy movements all seek to create the conditions for people to exercise their dignity. From satisfying material needs to enabling creative expression through the arts, philanthropy seeks to engage others so they can attain or express their human dignity. But it is the philanthropist as well who seeks respect, satisfaction and in some cases redemption by engaging in the business of dignity.
The Salvation Army uniform is well recognized as a symbol of the service the men and women who wear it provide “without judgment” to those in need. How dignified they look and how well deserved was the appreciative gaze that greeted them everywhere I joined them.
But the business of dignity is not only practiced by ministries and the nonprofit sector. At the launch of the HNI, the former CEO of Krispy Kreme and current board chair of The Salvation Army, Tony Thompson, spoke about the role of well-managed food service companies that provide opportunities for entry-level employees to rise into top corporate positions. There is no dignity like that provided by the self-sufficiency attained through a job.
Also joining the launch was U.S. Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina, who spoke of the empowering experience of self-directed wealth creation, but also of the laws that treat all of us fairly and equally, guaranteeing equality and dignity before the law.
The business of dignity is not all about salving wounds and uplift. Once we have basic necessities met, we begin to notice our relative position in society and that also begins to affect our sense of dignity.
Research increasingly shows that cognitive, health, educational and income outcomes are influenced by one’s relative position in society, making it difficult for those who begin with little to escape their condition. This is akin to what Warren Buffet refers to as the ovarian lottery.
Politics are directly about the contestation for position and dignity in society. When the overall economic pie grows, it is easier to accommodate these conflicts as everyone’s position is improving, regardless of where they stand relative to others. But when the pie is not growing or when the growth is largely confined to those who already have the largest pieces, relative position becomes more important and more strongly felt.
This provides politicians and their intellectual or ideological accompanists greater opportunities to formulate interpretations of relative disparities and to craft proposals for correcting them. So politicians are also in the dignity business, acting like entrepreneurs who seek to fill a need.
They market its salience while proclaiming that they have just the product or service to address it. When we find these politicians outside the formal boundaries of government, we refer to them as advocates and more readily recognize their place in the philanthropic landscape.
But politics is different when one is dealing with masses of strangers who are only related through abstract common principles, shared experiences of spectacles, or the kind of civic education that has been on the wane. It is easier to discount the dignity of more distant strangers, as it is often appropriate to value more highly those who are closest to us.
With the exception of some disasters where we see others stripped of everything but the common humanity that unites us, distance tends to dampen our concern for others’ dignity. Indeed, throughout history we have seen much more nefarious violations of others’ dignity when we could think of them as culturally or physically distant and different in some fundamental way.
Even in our intimate circles, the quest to adjudicate relative positions of dignity can also lead to fraternal bloodshed. Still, it is more difficult to systematically dehumanize or distance those with whom one has ongoing, personal interaction.
Several commentators on the current state of our national polarization have expressed optimism about the prospects for localities to get things done, as this is where we have personal experiences with each other and where we must learn to work together if we are to solve our shared problems.
When you look someone in the eye it is more difficult to discount their dignity than if you see them as a bit player in a very large impersonal story about how you came to your deeply felt and robustly justified grievance that you feel is injuring your dignity.
The dignity business is everybody’s business, but some do it much better than others. And different people and different sectors take the lead at different times. Today we need everyone to realize that they are not only worthy of claiming dignity but also that they are capable and expected to share it with others.
This is why I am a great admirer of The Salvation Army’s insistence on putting human dignity first, without judgment.
Eugene R. Tempel Dean