Thursday, 22 October 2009

Charities in Dialogue: why reading Dostoevsky might help

Some Philosophical Observations
What's the nature of the relationship that charities need to have with their beneficiaries and supporters? While, in a sense, that depends on what sort of cause or activity it's involved in, there are, surely, some common features that guide how we relate to the web of stakeholders that surround us?  A word that I've noticed popping up in recent weeks from commentators on the sector is dialogue, particularly in discussions about the uses of and potential for social media.

Which is great, but perhaps we need to pause a moment and be clear what it is we mean when we talk about dialogue.  What is it and what do we expect it to achieve?  At its simplest it's just a conversation between two people.  In classical philosophy, from Plato onwards, and particularly through Medieval Scholasticism it was a way of testing propositions against objections with the presumption that the initial proposition would prevail.

When I was PhD student grappling with the obscurities of the back-blocks of literary theory I came across the ideas of the Russian philosopher and critic Mikhail Bakhtin.  In 1929, Bakhtin wrote Problems in Dostoevsky's Art, a masterful exploration of Dostoevsky's novels, in which he introduced a rich and generous understanding of what constitutes a human being, how the individual relates and is related to and understood by others, and how a multiplicity or 'polyphony' of voices and viewpoints is essential and has value and the capacity for being truthful. But truth is to be found in the engagement between disparate voices, or, what in later works, he would develop into dialogue, not in either the prevalence of a strong voice over weaker ones, or in some sort of synthesis of different opinions. Later writing developed the concept of dialogue and shifted it's use beyond just the exploration of novels to understanding that all use of language has a dialogic quality when, in engaging with the ideas of another, dynamic change occurs.

Bakhtin was not the only twentieth century thinker address how dialogue effects change but I still find his thinking about how mutual respect, and the desire to engage with and understand multiple perspectives becomes a mechanism for change.

World Faiths Development Dialogue - An Attempt at Paradigm-Shift

So, I would want to suggest a definition of dialogue as: a conversation that has the capacity to change all the participants in it. In the early years of this century I had involvement in a project which attempted to apply that sort of thinking to very practical issues. The World Faiths Development Dialogue tried to bridge the gap between development professionals, particularly in the Bretton Woods Institutions, and faith communities around the world, often living alongside some of the poorest people on the planet.  Was it possible to instigate a perspective-changing conversation between these very different groups of people?

Well there were certainly times when I wasn't sure.  I recall an encounter between the President of the World Bank and a very Senior Indian Hindu Swami in which they almost visibly found no point of contact and 'talked-past' each other.  An opportunity wasted?  Or maybe an opportunity where the necessary preparation hadn't been done and the interlocutors provided with the right tools and information?  More successful, at least to my mind, was a local encounter in the Ethiopian town of Jijiga where leaders from faith communities and development professionals discussed problems related to tensions between nomadic cattle grazers and settled pastoralists. This was much more focussed, practically orientated and ultimately fruitful exercise which demonstrated how the principles of dialogue worked in practice.

Dialogue and the Modern Charity

I'm pretty convinced that charities need to think about how dialogue can inform their relationships with the public. A presentation by Bryan Miller of CRUK and Jonathan Waddingham at JustGiving seems to me to be taking the particular task of fundraising using social media and addressing it with the sorts of presumptions of respect and listening that dialogue really needs. I am sure that because charities inhabit a privileged piece of social and legal territory, they need to be much more intentionally dialogic in their approach to their stakeholders.  To foment the sorts of change that charities exist to achieve, they, too, need to have the institutional generosity of spirit to be changed in their engagement with their stakeholders.

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