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Giving Now: Accelerating Human Rights for All

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Patricia Illingworth, Professor of Philosophy and Business; Lecturer, Law and Public Policy

“Moral self-licensing” is an unconscious tendency, when people follow their good acts with bad acts to balance the good with the bad. People who are generous, caring, and helpful are particularly vulnerable to moral self-licensing. And because these qualities characterize many donors, philanthropy is at risk of perpetuating the bad acts that follow this common mental glitch.

In this excerpt from Giving Now, I argue that by practicing due diligence and vetting donors, nonprofits can prevent future harms associated with moral self-licensing and sidestep their complicity in them. When donors view their giving as a human rights responsibility—rather than as an act of generosity—they are less vulnerable to moral licensing. Understanding philanthropy through the lens of human rights changes the narrative from “I am kind and generous” to “just doing my duty.”

A human rights framework can diminish the risk of moral licensing, and guide donors on where to give, how much to give, and when to give, and to this end, Giving Nowapplies the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights to the nonprofit sector. Giving to meet our human rights responsibilities changes the power dynamic between donors and recipients: Recipients are asserting a right and donors meeting a responsibility. When we reimagine philanthropy as a human rights responsibility, many of the concerns that have led to a backlash against philanthropy can be addressed.—Patricia Illingworth

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