As a teenager, I volunteered at my local church’s Christmas market. The organisers posted me on a stall selling donated toys, and seeing no prices, I asked if everything was to be given out for free. I was told to charge people something small: 10p, 20p, a pound, and if they didn’t have it, to give it to them anyway. “People feel better if they pay something,” I was told, “or are at least given the option.”
Back then I didn’t fully understand the implications of this, but I was put in mind of it recently while reading about a church in Sunderland who have done the same. I have been thinking ever since about their aim: “to give dignity to parents”. Encouraging the dignity of beneficiaries has historically been a core tenet of the charity sector, but now more than ever it is worth an exploration of how certain charities have been bringing dignity to the heart of their delivery, and why this kind of support is growing.
The issue of indignity
Something that’s become apparent through the years of our focus groups and interviews is that no matter their circumstances or whether the term technically applies, no member of the public wants to self-identify with the term poverty. Over the years, we’ve seen people express that they have felt stigmatised and degraded by the implication that they’re poor, often feeling that it’s a judgemental term. We have even seen it be attached to a moral issue, and a failure to work hard enough. But mainly people just don’t think its something that applies to them. They assume others are struggling more, and therefore need support more, and have an idea of what poverty looks like that would be more at home in a previous century. Therefore, even among those with the least, people will simply say that they are ‘managing’, or ‘getting by’. And so, it seems, poverty is something that happens to other people.
The indignity of this label has become a growing issue due the cost-of-living crisis, during which a huge number of people have had to acknowledge that they will need to find support. Even among working households who have never needed help before, costs have become too high, with support calls to Citizen’s Advice for employed people nearly tripling since 2020. Yet despite the growing need, the perceived indignity of needing charity support, or viewing it as something they should not be accessing as they are ‘just about managing’ is likely to be a barrier for charities to reach the right audiences.
Normalising your approach
More than ever, therefore, a goal of charities must be to combat feelings of otherness and indignity. Many charities have been achieving this lately, opting to bring the normality of a paid-for experience such as shopping or a day out to their service delivery.
For example, in this recent story of someone using a foodbank for the first time, they felt embarrassed to be visible while queueing. So, locations such as Lodging House Mission in Glasgow have shifted away from food collection at a window, and started to deliver food to people’s tables. Though a small change, this enables all in attendance to avoid the scrutiny of a queue and feel more comfortable as they wait for their food – it feels just like a cafe. Likewise, Sal’s Shoes is a charity providing shoes for children who give the experience of shopping: measuring, picking a style, and fitting. This provides children with the dignity of the common experience, ensuring that they can be confident among their peers.
A little payment is worth a lot
Rather than being made to feel like they’re leaning on charities, many people are more comfortable feeling like they’re being thrifty. As fans of Martin Lewis will tell you, we’re a nation proud of our money sense. We know that the public feel comfortable using services like OLIO or Too Good To Go which let people cut down on their grocery budget while giving them the benefit and satisfaction of cutting down on food waste. So how can we translate this to charity?
Well, just like the Christmas market I volunteered at, charities have realised that the option to pay a small amount can give the gratification of paying for a grocery shop and feel like they’re simply taking advantage of a good deal. One such food bank, the Vale Pantry in Dorset, allows patrons to pay only £6 for £60 of groceries of their choosing which gives visitors autonomy and control over the process. It’s the grocery equivalent of a charity shop - and we all know there’s no shame in showing off an incredible (and cheap) find from a charity shop.
Promoting dignity in your delivery is likely to be at the core of your mission as a charity as it stands: but with many of us facing an influx of demand in the coming months it’s worth reviewing whether you can make any small changes. Not only will you improve the quality of care of your core base of beneficiaries, but also warmly welcome new folk who might not yet be totally comfortable needing support.
Nice article, thanks. Dignity is so interesting, and as you say, is an internal quality (IE one's sense of self), not an external one (ie how one is perceived) as so many definitions suggest.