The enduring importance of kindness

August 8, 2019

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by Ben Thurman, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

This Sunday, 11 August, marks 100 years since the death of our founder, the great Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In recognition of this historical landmark we are publishing a special blog series this week, with a new article every day, explaining how the Trust is continuing Carnegie’s legacy, 100 years since his passing. Today Ben Thurman writes about our kindness work.

So much has changed in the past 100 years, but kindness is a value that Andrew Carnegie would have known and recognised. It is something that we all understand and feel instinctively, something that transcends boundaries and divisions, and enables us relate to others as kin. It builds our sense of belonging and connection with other people. It is at the very heart of our wellbeing.

But despite its appearance as something that is simple and universal, we have found that people do not always experience kindness. Data from the first ever quantitative survey on kindness reveal that, across the UK and Ireland, only two in five people strongly feel that people in their local area are generally kind. And so, over the last four years, the Trust has been exploring what can be done to make kindness more commonly part of people’s experiences.

Our work has identified a number of things that can be done to create the space and permission for kindness in communities. But kindness is not just about people in communities: the relationships between service providers and citizens have a fundamental impact on individual and societal wellbeing. And so, we have also been exploring the importance of kindness in public policy, initially through an inquiry led by Carnegie Fellow Julia Unwin, Kindness, emotions and human relationships: The blind sport in public policy.

Julia’s report argues that, while there are very good reasons for a measured, transactional, data-driven approach to public policy, the major challenges of our time demand an approach that is more flexible, more relational, and more human.

These top-level findings fed into our thinking about the practice of kindness. Over the last 12 months, we have been coordinating a Kindness Innovation Network, in order to understand what it might take to embed kindness in organisational cultures and behaviours. We know that services are at their best (and deliver the best outcomes) when individuals within them respond to people in a way that is flexible and relational. This work, then, has focused on the importance of allowing autonomy and authenticity at ‘the frontline’.

Much of this, though, requires tackling ‘what gets in the way’: rethinking our attitudes and approach towards risk and professionalism, which can inhibit kindness, and redefining the way that we measure ‘success’. Framed in this context, kindness is no longer the simple, ‘fluffy’ concept that it first appears, but a radical proposition – one that demands challenging established systems and structures and rethinking the way that things are run and managed.

Despite the challenge and complexity, the Trust’s work on kindness is part of a growing movement. When we started thinking about this in 2016, we had to justify the relevance of kindness in policy discussions. We are in a very different place now, with organisations across the UK thinking seriously about how to enable relationships, how to build emotions into policy design, how to embed radical kindness.

Over the next 18 months, our programme of work will continue to work with and support this coalition of people to think differently and to focus on what matters. And we hope to build our understanding of the practical change that is needed to enable all individuals – whether in communities or in ‘professional’ settings – to treat each other like kin.