Human rights should be a factor in philanthropic giving, writes Northeastern professor in new book

Giving Now book standing up on a table
Patricia Illingworth’s new book, Giving Now, Accelerating Human Rights for All. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“What criteria do people use to give?” asks Patricia Illingworth in her new book, “Giving Now: Accelerating Human Rights for All.” 

“A lot of people,” she says, “are engaged in what we call affinity giving, where they give to organizations with which they have an affinity.”

This often means philanthropists—anyone interested in giving money to a cause that would benefit the common good, Illingworth says—give on the basis of their personal proximity to institutions, which tend to be institutions of higher education and religious groups.

But are these the right criteria for philanthropic donations?

Headshot of Patricia Illingworth
Patricia Illingworth is a professor of philosophy and business at Northeastern University. Her new book argues that human rights should underlie all philanthropic work. Courtesy photo.

Illingworth is a professor of philosophy and business at Northeastern University who focuses on the ethics of philanthropy. “Giving Now” argues that human rights should form the basis of philanthropic giving, and that both philanthropists and the organizations that receive their money are responsible for doing their research.

“The United Nations endorsed a framework called the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights,” which came out in 2011, Illingworth says. “It applies to all businesses, but it also applies to enterprises,” which includes charitable nonprofits. “It says that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, and that there’s a duty of due diligence.”

Both nonprofits and philanthropists share this responsibility. The former should vet their donors to avoid taking money from those who have violated human rights in the past, “like Jeffrey Epstein, or many of the Russian oligarchs,” she says. When nonprofits accept money from these “tainted donors,” they risk complicity in donors’ own violations. 

And philanthropists should do the same research, investigating how nonprofits use their funding, other major donors and even their marketing—some nonprofits are guilty of a problem Illingworth calls “the pornography of poverty,” which capitalizes on images of suffering to evoke an emotional response in their advertising and increase giving.

One of the best things that givers can do is look at the leadership of a philanthropic organization, Illingworth says. “Donate to organizations led by the people who the organization [aims] at helping.” This can help ensure that nonprofits remain unbiased.

Relying on a human rights framework also protects society from philanthropy’s potential threat to the democratic process. “When billionaires give, they can determine the social agenda,” Illingworth cautions. Emphasizing human rights means that the social agenda is predetermined, the agenda is the elevation of human rights.

Further, attending to the “guiding principles” can help guide givers toward the most human rights-aligned sectors, sectors like health care, the right to democracy and the right to education.

And the benefits of philanthropy cannot be ignored, Illingworth says. “The practice of philanthropy … helps to create social trust and social capital.” 

Guided by principles that can benefit humanity’s basic rights, philanthropy has the capacity to change the world in radical ways, for the better. “Society’s better off, and thrives in a way that it doesn’t without” philanthropy, she says.

Illingworth has long studied the common good, with books like “Us Before Me: Ethics and Social Capital for Global Well-being” and “Giving Well: The Ethics of Philanthropy,” and she knows that people have a desire “to make the world a better place.” She notes that “the world part is important.” We need a wider perspective.

“One of the themes of the book is that we have a great deal to learn from looking at how people gave during COVID-19.” Illingworth says. Ultimately, “people really wanted to help other people.” 

For media inquiries, please contact