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How Learning to Listen Prepared One Funder for Its Crisis Response

Date: May 11, 2020

LaTida Smith

President, The Winston-Salem Foundation

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As our team at Moses Taylor Foundation began responding to the impacts of COVID-19 in Northeastern Pennsylvania, we were uncertain where we’d land. But we knew exactly where to begin: with listening.

And as we continue to wrestle with so many questions — How do we handle all our partners needing significant support at the same time? How do we act quickly and decisively while also preparing for the long-term implications of this unfolding crisis? — we lean on feedback to inform our answers. We’re inviting grantees to share what they’re experiencing, calling nonprofit leaders to check in on their evolving needs, and conducting spot surveys to test specific strategies for support.

This kind of outreach and partnership is not new to us. From the Foundation’s beginnings eight years ago, we’ve valued the practice of listening. We conducted listening tours to shape our initial grantmaking approach. When I joined as a new CEO who was also new to the area, gathering in-person data was particularly helpful, and it signaled the Foundation’s conviction that the solutions we aimed to support were with those in our community closest to the challenges. I couldn’t wait until we had enough years of grantmaking under our belt to conduct our first Grantee and Applicant Perception Reports. We were eager to test the degree to which our partners felt our actions were aligned with our values and aims.

Not long thereafter, it was by walking with a group of our grantees through the Fund for Shared Insight’s Listen4Good capacity-building initiative that we truly came to appreciate listening as a central strategy for achieving our mission. Participating in the program also offered the opportunity to support a cohort of grantees through a shared learning experience. Prior to Listen4Good, we had supported important but unrelated capacity-building projects for individual nonprofits in our region. Now, we had the chance to learn alongside our grantees as partners and to consider how their learning could inform our grantmaking strategies.

We nominated a diverse group of health and human service grantees in our region — based mostly on their interest and readiness for a deep dive into listening and feedback — to participate in Listen4Good. When all five of our nominated grantees were selected to participate, we formed an informal learning community. Our partners came together each quarter over lunch to compare notes and share their evolving learning on the complexities of truly listening to the people they seek to serve. Together, they worked to equip their leadership teams and boards to make decisions based on feedback and identify meaningful ways to close the feedback loop — circling back with clients to share how they were using the input they received.

At the start, our grantee partners at Outreach – Center for Community Resources were uncertain about what it would be like to ask prisoners in the county jail for feedback on the nonprofit’s life-skills programming. They wondered if prisoners would embrace the feedback process and take the risk to provide honest feedback, and if prison staff would be open to hearing what prisoners had to say. They asked anyway.

What they heard were thoughtful responses and requests, like for additional program time and materials, which Outreach was willing and able to meet. When a number of survey respondents asked for a discontinued GED program to be resumed, Outreach shared the feedback with the prison board, which mustered the resources to reinstate the program.

Our learning community was buoyed by Outreach’s experience. Reinstating the GED program was a visible, unanticipated outcome that inspired Outreach’s team and showed the prisoners the transformative impact of their feedback. Outreach staff also modeled creativity in closing the loop with clients by making posters featuring messages and recommendations from the survey responses and displaying them in the spaces where programs were delivered. Clients loved seeing their words in print. It mattered that someone heard them and thought their comments were valuable enough to share, and the posters made them feel empowered even before changes were made as a result of their input. Outreach, its clients, and our other Listen4Good partners got to see the inherent power of honest questions, candid answers, thoughtful listening, and open communication.

Our Foundation went into that first round of Listen4Good seeking a shared learning experience with a cohort of our grantees. We left with a commitment to feedback that would permeate every aspect of our work.

We wrote feedback questions into our grant application and reporting processes. We made a commitment in our strategic plan to deepening our learning and implementing feedback loops. We recruited local funding colleagues to join us in nominating a new cohort of grantees into the next Listen4Good cycle to build both nonprofit and funder muscle for listening and feedback throughout our region.

So, when we began thinking about how to respond to COVID-19, we immediately drew from our experience with community, feedback, and openness. We quickly relaxed our grantmaking and reporting requirements. We converted all program grants to operating support. We established a rapid-response grantmaking process to get funding to existing partners in need, within a week and without requiring a grant application. And we revised our FY2021 plan to extend these practices as needed to meet the demands of the ongoing crisis.

Still, even with our commitment to feedback, I worried about asking our grantees the critical, but open-ended, question: What do you need? The stakes felt higher and more urgent, and the margin for error greater.

Ultimately, I was emboldened by our Listen4Good grantees who initially had been wary of feedback, yet who learned that asking and receiving honest responses — no matter how overwhelming — would be better than not asking at all. I had to step back and acknowledge that Moses Taylor Foundation is just one piece of the puzzle for our grantees. Their needs always surpass our capacity. They are not looking for us to save them. They just hope we’ll listen and be smart about the support we provide.

We also know that there are greater demands for our grantees’ time now, so we’re judicious in how we reach out. Staying in dialogue with our colleague funders helps, too, as we can incorporate the feedback they might get into our own decision-making as well.

Listen4Good helped us hone these practices of shared learning, and the lessons have served as invaluable guideposts. We understand the necessity of proximity to our grantees, the trust and courage required to ask our partners about what they need, and the importance of closing every feedback loop.

Our crisis response so far hasn’t been easy. And it has exposed some gaps (we need to do more to bring our board along, for example). But listening is moving us in the right direction. And with so many questions to address, that’s a pretty solid start.

LaTida Smith is president and CEO of Moses Taylor Foundation.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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