To Listen Much More Closely

September 4, 2015 //

I appreciated Paul Shoemaker’s recent article 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 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. Peery promotes a grantee-centric approach, 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?



  1. Jessamyn Shams-Lau on September 4, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks for the shout-out, Pia! We’re still working on it here at the Peery Fdn. What we’ve found so far is that it’s pretty easy to listen. It’s much harder to hear what people are telling you AND do something useful with that information. As I said, we’re working on it. Thanks for the encouragement and support, as always!

  2. Renee on September 14, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    Thank you for this reminder, I love this practice of listening, whether it is in a funder-grantee relationship, within our Organizations with other colleagues, and in our own lives, (even in nature)… We try to practice this in our Foundation, and have learned so much from our grantees and the field. Similar to what Jessamyn says in her comment, it is a ‘practice’ which makes it dynamic.

    • Pia Infante on September 18, 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Thanks for coming by Renee, sounds TWI and Akonadi have aligned values and practice. I look forward to building with you and the Akonadi team!