Respect and Dignity are Not Good Enough: A Common Pitfall in Ethical Communications

If your Ethical Fundraising Guidelines rely on words like “Dignity” and “Respect” to inform behavior and practice, chances are you’re not accomplishing very much.

When I read through guidelines for ethical storytelling or ethical photography and come across the phrases like “we believe in treating everyone with respect,” I’m inclined to ask three questions:

What is considered “respectful” treatment?
Who determines that?
What does it look like?

Growing up in east Texas it was considered respectful by most people to refer to strangers as “sir” or “ma’am.” This is so standard that most people say it automatically. However I quickly learned after moving to Los Angeles that calling someone “sir” or “ma’am” – especially a person under thirty years old – elicits laughter at best, and embarrassment or anger at worst. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard those word uttered once outside of a television since I moved to the west coast. Just a three-hour flight away and you’ll find the behaviors of “respect” vary greatly.

“Dignity” is another word that shows up in all kinds of international development creeds and manifestos, often accompanying the word “portray”: as in, “we portray people with dignity.” The fact is that different groups of people define “dignity” in different ways, but often the definitions held by those people portrayed don’t get codified. Instead, the word is left to the interpretations of the authors and readers of the manifesto, who are often from completely different cultural backgrounds than the people they are portraying.

Using these vague words in your manifesto almost guarantees that:

A) no ethical issue will ever arise because each staff member will think they are portraying beneficiaries in a respectful way, according to their own perspectives, or

B) ethical issues will come up all the time as colleagues disagree over what they each consider to be respectful.

We can solve this tricky situation by acknowledging that we are all different, have different definitions of respect, and require different respectful treatment. Thanks to the work of sociologist Milton Bennett, we can pass up the Golden Rule (treat others the way we want to be treated) for the more valuable Platinum Rule: treat others the way they want to be treated.

So how do we know how others want to be treated?

We ask them.

It sounds simple, but it can also be complex. Power dynamics exists when a nonprofit asks a beneficiary for their input, and these factors can influence that person’s response. The person receiving services from the nonprofit may be hesitant to voice their true opinion in fear of losing benefits or being seen as ungrateful. There are often also societal inequalities influencing the conversation. If an educated, wealthy person in position of power asks for “honest feedback” from someone less educated, less wealthy, less powerful, the feedback may be self-censored. That is why it is critical that you examine your feedback-gathering process before asking for input, and read my 5 tips for improving your chances of getting authentic answers.

So what happens after you get feedback? As you are writing your ethical fundraising manifesto, skip the empty phrases like “treat others with respect” and “preserve dignity” and say something meaningful and specific like these great examples from Discover the Journey:

“Place the camera at the eye level of a child, thus transforming the camera from a tool of observation (looking downwards) into a true platform for their voices to be heard.”

“We do not use photography/video of unrelated community members or nations when visually representing an organization’s work, but only of direct beneficiaries.”