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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

Integrating Compassion in International Development

Compassion honours how people got into international development work. It also helps point out how far we are from enacting it in practice.

— Heather Lanthorn

Heather shares her thoughts on how compassion can both inspire and be hindered by the systems established to provide assistance to those in need. She provides practical steps she has taken as a manager to incorporate compassion into her work. Additionally, she advocates for a more structured and professional approach to compassion within international development organisations.

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This article features in a series of interviews where Signe Jung Sorensen explores how purpose-driven professionals dedicated to contributing to a just, equitable, and sustainable world relate to the notion of "compassion". What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges, and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


Heather is the Co-Director of the Mercury Project at the Social Science Research Council. In addition, she serves on the Board of Directors for Feedback Labs and Advisors for the Clarity Foundation and IDinsight. Heather drinks copious amounts of tea and listens to too many murder mysteries while jog-and-sniffing with Miss Milo Annie, her dog. She is trying to get back on her snowboard after a many-year hiatus in western North Carolina.


SJ: What do you find interesting about the topic of compassion?

HL: Many people start working in international development because of a pro-social impulse. While it begins with compassion, we then discover ways we do our work that lack compassion. 

For example, we might find that too much empathy (“ruinous empathy”) will harm our team. We might discover that the current aid system fails to provide compassionate support to those it aims to assist.

Compassion speaks to how individuals experience their work internally. Compassion also speaks to how the sector itself works externally. 

I also appreciate that compassion overlaps with other current topics in international development, such as dignity, empathy, and altruism. Compassion honours how people got into international development work. It also helps point out how far we are from enacting it in practice.

SJ: What do you notice around compassion as motivation for work in the sector? 

HL: Compassion can fade over time as a motivation. It may also not be the primary reason for entering the sector. We should have compassion for our intentions changing over time and for our differing motivations. The international development sector is also an industry that provides salaries and jobs and seeks to self-perpetuate. 

As the sector shifts to more staffing from and in low- and middle-income countries, we need to acknowledge a broader range of motivations for getting into the sector. Many nonprofits may burn out their staff in the pursuit of a good cause. However, this may become less acceptable as motivations adapt, which is a positive development.

SJ: What places do you see compassion lacking in our work and sector?


International development work is often seen as a vocation - a calling rather than a job. This may lead to high expectations on everyone to invest significant time and emotions into work, which can be unsustainable. 

It can unintentionally lead to a work environment that lacks compassion. 

There can also be confusion about what a compassionate way to work with communities is. Of course, it’s important to use participatory design. We know that top-down decisions, even if based on sound evidence, won’t work. At the same time, these participatory approaches can also overburden communities that are already overstretched.

We shouldn’t hold back our knowledge and tools, which could help us overcome challenges faster. Inaction is also an intervention.

Inspired by effective altruism, you want effective compassion. You don’t want ways of working that only make you feel better.

SJ: That speaks nicely to the action component of compassion. How have you incorporated compassion into your work?

HL: I find the first step of compassion - noticing someone in pain – relevant.

The aid sector was remote before remote working became the norm. We usually have teammates in different countries and contexts. So, how do you build systems for noticing how people are doing? 

When I became a manager, I learned how to intentionally make it a weekly practice to have non-project check-ins and ask my reports: “How are you–how are you really?”. I drew inspiration from a mix of management books (for example this book), colleagues, and the questions I wished my bosses would have asked me. It takes effort, so how do we bring that in? How do we not only make the managers responsible for noticing and compassion in an organisational structure?

SJ: That’s a great example of how to make compassion practical in one area. Do you have any other examples from your career in international development that made you think, “Ah, thats compassion in action?”

HL: There are small acts of compassion I’ve been fortunate to be on the receiving end of. For example, I have worked in organisations that have good policies around illness and create space for recovery. 

Another example is when I felt we unfairly underpaid some of our staff. We couldn’t secure a regular wage job, so I decided to create other jobs for them and pay out of my salary.

Although it wasn’t a sustainable solution, it was rooted in noticing a problem. It didn’t lead to a systemic change, but the action didn’t harm the giver (me) or the receiver (staff). It was good for these people at that moment. 

Organisationally, consciously incorporating people-management skills is an act of compassion. For example, during my tenure at IDInsight, the organisation aimed to offer management training. The organisation did not impose any specific requirements for managers to handle people. However, they emphasised its significance. I was assessed based on my managerial skills, and it was supposed that being a good manager would enhance my team's productivity.

It is important to create a system where empathy and compassion are acknowledged, noticed, and valued.

SJ: What has happened as a result of these compassionate practices, in your opinion?

HL: I think a more pleasant work environment. It would probably be more effective too. When you’ve laid the groundwork for making space to talk about problems, you are likely to pick up on problems earlier. People are more likely to voice a concern and less likely to hide a mistake. It prevents burnout – or at least makes us more aware of it – and improves a project's technical aspects. 

SJ: What have you experienced happening where there’s been a lack of compassion?

HL: Firstly, it leads to people looking for new jobs and higher turnover. Secondly, I also think it leads to dissent and factions. When there is no compassion, people tend to amplify their secret and back-channel ways. This happens if there is no explanation or empathising for inaction.

SJ: What challenges do you see for bringing forth more compassion?

HL: There are time and energy costs associated with more compassionate practices. I am making the case that it’s worth it down the road, but it is challenging.

For example, suppose you make it a habit to check in with your direct report more frequently. In that case, you are essentially dedicating extra time and effort to finding a solution or providing support. This can be emotionally taxing and draining, particularly if you aren't receiving the necessary support from your organisation.

It is crucial to recognize and appreciate the efforts of individuals who perform these duties as a part of their work. Every organisation has a unique perspective on the ideal relationship between managers and supervisors. It can be challenging to determine the exact role you play as a manager, what is expected of you, what you are allowed to do, and what you are incentivised to do. These questions can be difficult to navigate on your own.

SJ: What suggestions or ideas might you have for bringing forth more compassionate practices in the international development sector?

HL: These things need professionalisation. 

Systematising compassion in some way would be helpful. Otherwise, you expect people to enact compassion out of their own goodwill and resources. 

For example, my trial-and-error spreadsheet of personal check-in questions as a manager at IDInsight - as limited as it may have been as a tool - was a system that lowered the burden for me. I could have reconsidered which questions I should ask my direct reports every week. Instead, I had notes on how they were actually doing and could follow up on it. 

Reducing barriers to entry and working compassion into a routine will minimise friction in implementing compassionate practices.  

I also think there's an important question about how you maintain empathy – and for whom. If you work in aid, you're probably balancing having empathy for the communities you want to serve and empathy for your more privileged teammates. How do you keep empathy alive as you become more senior and removed from the context?

SJ: These are some great questions to think about. What other considerations do you have around this topic? Which questions are you curious about exploring further? 

HL: I am interested in exploring more research on how to create functional and compassionate systems. This would ensure that individuals are not solely responsible for displaying compassion.

I would like to identify organisations that prioritise compassion and study the outcomes of their efforts. I am curious to see how they integrate compassion into their everyday practices, rather than treating it as a one-time event.

Is the way we practise compassion in the aid sector different from how it is practised in the business sector? Should it be different?

There is a risk of compassion, like other softer elements, becoming a trend or a one-time performance. How can we gather data to support it?


This conversation reflects Heather Lanthorn’s personal views and not those of any organisation she has worked for or currently works for. 

Explore Heather's work and read her helpful blogpost on the art of managing direct reports. Heather is currently inspired by reading The Culture Code, which looks at how great cultures are built and sustained in groups.


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