In April 2020, we surveyed 407 members of SurveyMonkey’s panel of US non-profit professionals. 79% were personally committed to raising dignity with their colleagues, as an issue where they could do better. That reinforces our sense that this is a moment for dignity – a time when a longstanding rhetorical commitment can result in real and lasting progress toward respectful treatment for all.


A sector open to real change

Not only are people prepared to take action – many say they are willing to make sacrifices to do so. 52% strongly or somewhat agree that they would take a pay cut, to work at an organisation that was more respectful. Asked if they would insist on more respectful treatment, even if it meant their organisation served fewer people, 39% somewhat or strongly agreed (and a plurality, 42%, neither agreed nor disagreed; just 18% strongly or somewhat disagree). Respondents say they are willing to put their paychecks on the line, and prioritise quality over quantity, to ensure that people’s dignity is properly respected.

What are they prepared to do? The most popular of the suggested interventions are smallish changes to practice. Many involve listening better, through research practices. 64% thought their organisation would ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ be willing to commit to always addressing people by name. 60% thought their organisation would ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ be willing to hold informal listening conversations with those it serves. 59% offered similar support for incorporating measures of respectfulness into routine monitoring and evaluation, and 55% thought their organisation would very or somewhat likely be willing to commission new research. 54% thought their organisation would offer beneficiaries more choice and autonomy in its processes. Just 27% were willing to commit to switching their program towards cash transfers.

Who drives support for dignity? The dissenters

Discussion of dignity in charities is pretty common – and most of this audience doesn’t think it is hypocritical. 48% somewhat or strongly agree that dignity is something their organisation talks about often, and 44% think this about their sector. Just 15% somewhat or strongly agree that their organisation doesn’t practice what it preaches, and just 17% feel the sector doesn’t practice what it preaches. Only 21% of US non-profit professionals say they frequently experience disrespectful treatment. 

Yet it is those who dissent who are really pushing for change – people who experience disrespectful treatment in their own lives, and who detect hypocrisy in how the sector talks about dignity. Willingness to take a paycut to work for an organisation that prioritise dignity is 8.3 times higher among those who agree with the statement ‘When it comes to dignity, our sector doesn’t practice what it preaches’, compared to those who do not agree (p=0.004). A similar relationship exists between willingness to take a pay cut and frequently experiencing disrespectful treatment in one’s own life; those who strongly agreed that they experience such treatment are 10.6 times more likely to be willing to take a paycut, compared to those who strongly or somewhat disagree (p=0.05). The same is true when examining the outcome variable ‘I would like my organisation to be more respectful of people’s dignity, even if that came at the cost of serving fewer people’. Participants who strongly agreed that they frequently experienced disrespectful treatment were 8 times more likely to say that they would like their organisation to make that trade-off, and 10 times higher for those who detect hypocrisy, agreeing that ‘When it comes to dignity, our sector doesn’t practice what it preaches’.

No single demographic group seems consistently most likely to commit to dignity. These conclusions were fairly consistent across gender and age. Christians were 1.5 times more likely than other religious groups to say ‘I would like my organisation to be more respectful of people’s dignity, even if that came at the cost of serving fewer people’, but this difference did not emerge in relation to other dependent variables. There was no clear difference between different nonprofit sectors, or where in the United States the respondent was from. In general, whether a respondent identified as a Person of Colour did not make a significant difference to their responses, with one exception: they were 39% less likely than non-POCs to agree that ‘I would prefer to work for an organisation that prioritised being respectful of people’s dignity, even if I had to take a pay cut to do so’. No similar relationship appeared between minoritized status and other dependent variables.

Creating a culture of dignity? Invite reflection

Meanwhile, those who strongly agree to the statement “Dignity is something my organisation talks about often” are 5x more likely to commit to raising dignity, as opposed to those who strongly disagree. Leaders who talk about dignity can create room for those dissenters to raise issues and challenge the organisation to get better.

Are there particular messages that those leaders might use, in building internal cultures to take dignity seriously? Perhaps the most promising are inviting employees to consider dignity, by asking them to reflect on their personal experiences of disrespect.

We ran a small experiment as part of this study. Participants were told that ‘When we put dignity first in our work, it makes a difference.’ Alongside this, they randomly saw one of several messages that focused on prompting positive emotions (joy, and satisfaction), and negative emotions (annoyance, and disgust). We chose these emotion-conjuring messages, having invited a separate pilot sample of 104 US online participants to prioritise among messaging ideas drawn from the MINDSPACE checklist of behavioural science techniques. They picked treatments focused on Affect, or emotive state. We picked the specific emotions because annoyance and disgust were the emotions most commonly associated with experiencing disrespect in previous Dignity Project research (with joy and satisfaction serving as their rough opposites). Those participants in the control group saw a statement that simply invited them to reflect: ‘Think about how it feels when you’re treated with respect. When we put dignity first in our work, it makes a difference.’

None of the experimental treatments made people more likely than the control to say that they would be willing to take a paycut. If we group the joy and satisfaction treatment groups together as a ‘positive language’ group, that group 33% less likely to ask their organisation to serve fewer people in order to be more respectful, compared to the control group (p=0.03). (If we treat the two groups separately, we find similar results, just short of significance: p=0.06 and 0.07 respectively). If we group the negative language treatments together, they are 41% less likely than the control group to say that their organisation should be more respectful of people’s dignity, even if that came at the cost of serving fewer people, though this is only significant at p=0.1. All four experimental treatments seemed to underperform the control group when asked if people were willing to personally commit to raising dignity as an issue where the organisation could do better, with their colleagues, though none of these results was significant even at the 0.1 level. Taken together, this evidence suggests that of the tested messages, the highest performing is the one that invites people to reflect for themselves on how disrespect feels.

Conclusion: a moment for dignity

A large majority of surveyed US non-profit staff are committed to discussing dignity. Many are even prepared to put their pay checks on the line to do so. They think their organisations would be willing to commit to at least some actions to be more respectful of those they serve, like listening better. That’s excellent news for the movement towards dignity. Leaders can give their teams permission to challenge dignity by asking them to reflect on how they experience disrespect. Those who detect hypocrisy and who experience disrespectful treatment themselves are especially likely to respond.

The Dignity Project provides workshops and consulting to organisations seeking to build a culture of dignity. Get in touch to learn more.

Our thanks to Shelmith Kariuki, Mark Mills and Jo Meredith Hardy for their assistance with this.

Supporting materials: Data and analysis code. Questionnaire.

Commitment to raising dignity with colleagues