- The Whitman Institute - https://thewhitmaninstitute.org -

To Listen Much More Closely

I appreciated Paul Shoemaker’s recent article [1] in the Chronicle of Philanthropy entitled “How to Rebuild Philanthropy’s Ability to Change the World” so much that I stole one of the subtitles – Listen Much More Closely to Nonprofits.

One of the first of many lessons I learned as a grant-maker from my Co-Executive Director, John, is how valuable and rare the practice of listening [2]truly is in this field.

In my many years of work as a facilitator, consultant, and coach, I learned and practiced different modes of listening.  Listening to what’s being said by individuals and by the group, listening to the unspoken, to the dynamic field that gets created between people in dialogue. In coaching, listening for habitual (often self-limiting) narrative patterns and surprising truths.

In the context of funder-grantee relationships, I’d like to offer 3 ways to listen more closely:

Restrain from Giving Unsolicited Advice

Listening that affirms and acknowledges without being quick to offer solutions means restraining pen and tongue in ways that are atypical in our culture. Sometimes our partners just need to talk through a complex situation or confidentially vent about a difficult moment, and be trusted that the way forward will come through being fully heard and having an opportunity to step back and reflect (go slow before going forward fast).

Listen for Opportunities

One way to leverage our vantage point as a funder is to be listening for possible opportunities and connections, and to be thoughtful advocates for our partners. We can make introductions to possible donors and new funding sources. We can point partners to resources in networks they haven’t come across already.  It is actually a great joy of mine to play matchmaker and introduce bright people to each other in ways that could spark new and productive friendships.

Be Willing to Be Changed

There’s a kind of listening that is basically a head nodding while we formulate our next brilliant thought.  It is rare for any of us to show up to a conversation or experience with a willingness to be changed by it. One radical way to listen is to be willing to question our own cherished beliefs and assumptions. I imagine the sector would be radically changed if funders (especially those with institutional power) were willing to listen to the authentic needs and requests of their nonprofit partners. This practice is one that TWI is keen on modeling and amplifying, in collaboration with many others, notably the Peery Foundation [3]. Peery promotes a grantee-centric approach [4], which hinges on listening more closely to their partners.

How do you keep your ear to the ground?  How do you listen closely to your partners?  When are you willing to be changed by what you hear?