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Shifting Power at the Intersection of Listening and Participation

Date: March 16, 2023

Melinda Tuan

Managing Director, Fund for Shared Insight

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Many leaders in our field, perhaps a majority, understand that for too long, philanthropy has operated in a top-down, hierarchical mode, isolated from the people and communities impacted by our decisions. We have privileged voices and perspectives of the wealthy and powerful while excluding or marginalizing communities from which wealth has been extracted or denied. Our institutions and ways of doing business are products of the same inequities that our grantmaking is often intended to address. And we need to change.

Those who believe that philanthropy needs to change can draw on an ever-widening variety of models, frameworks, and ideas. While it can be tempting to view these approaches as a continuum, with “entry level” and “advanced” practices, or as competing ideas, my colleagues and I at Fund for Shared Insight, the funder collaborative I lead, have come to see it’s more about fitting different pieces together within a specific context than choosing A or B.

Over time, our thinking about what constitutes high-quality listening and feedback, for example, has expanded to include a range of participatory practices. And our experience running a participatory grantmaking initiative has led us to recognize the complexity and nuance of power dynamics that warrant examination and shifting.

This thinking has been an evolution. We began our work in 2014 with the idea that both funders and nonprofits can do more good in the world by listening to the people and communities at the heart of their work and acting on what they hear. While we believed that funders listening to grantees was also important, we felt that idea already had considerable traction and was not the only way for philanthropy to hear community perspectives.

An early criticism of our work was that while listening is certainly important and foundational, listening alone is insufficient to disrupt the inherent power imbalance or to build trust between philanthropy and the people and communities most harmed by systemic and structural inequities and often least consulted by philanthropy.

We don’t disagree. While engaging in authentic listening is more multifaceted than feedback, and feedback is more involved than sending surveys, neither inherently shifts power or builds authentic relationships. Like all practices, listening and feedback can be done poorly or well. They can also be extractive and performative if not approached with humility and care.

The type of listening and feedback Shared Insight promotes always emphasizes responding, and acting on what is heard. We call feedback high-quality when data collection is simple yet flexible, captures a critical amount of representative voices, and produces credible, candid responses. And we define feedback loops as an ongoing cycle of gathering opinions and perspectives, where data is shared with respondents and used to inform change.

Our thinking on what constitutes high-quality feedback loops evolved further as we deepened our understanding of the relationship between feedback and equity. While aspects of diversity and inclusion were implicit in our initial work to help foundations and nonprofits listen, our understanding of equity has shifted considerably over the years based on challenging conversations within our group, facilitated conversations with leaders in racial equity work, and learning from hundreds of nonprofits participating in Listen4Good.

In 2021, Shared Insight adopted a set of equity principles, codifying our deepening commitment to hold equity as an explicit and centered value, priority, and goal. We asserted that equity was essential to any definition of “high-quality,” and our understanding and practice of equity hinged on shifting and sharing power.

In parallel with our ongoing learning about the relationship between listening and equity, Shared Insight launched a one-time, two-year participatory grantmaking initiative in 2019 to explore questions about how advocacy and policy organizations and funders might better listen to the people and communities most impacted by their work. In what came to be known as our Participatory Climate Initiative, we engaged participants from communities in the United States and its territories who are most impacted by climate change in designing the program and determining how to allocate $2 million in grants.

As part of the initiative’s scope, Shared Insight and our core funders also set out to learn and deepen our own listening, partnering, and participatory practices, plus share our learning — based on our successes, challenges, and failures — with other philanthropy organizations. We are in the process of developing a toolkit featuring lessons and recommendations for funders starting or expanding their own participatory processes, and look forward to sharing the toolkit later this spring.

Through our experiences over the years — with the Participatory Climate Initiative and Listen4Good, our own organization’s eye-opening learnings around equity, and wide-ranging efforts at knowledge-sharing with other funders, philanthropy-support organizations, and colleagues involved in trust-based philanthropy — we have evolved our understanding of the relationship between listening and participation.

One critical insight, for example, is the degree to which listening and feedback need to incorporate participatory processes to advance equity. Valerie Threlfall, managing director of Listen4Good, acknowledged this on Fund for Shared Insight’s blog last year when she laid out Listen4Good’s updated framework for thinking about what constitutes a high-quality feedback practice which, by our definition, must acknowledge and confront issues of power and privilege. “To advance equity across the steps of an organization’s feedback practice,” she wrote, “the way feedback is gathered and used must . . . ngage clients as partners throughout the feedback approach — whether that’s informing the design and collection process, interpreting results, and/or guiding the organizational response to feedback.”

A second insight is that even processes explicitly designed to be participatory don’t always shift power as much as we imagine they will, in part because it’s not up to funders to determine how power needs to shift. For example, an evaluation of Shared Insight’s Participatory Climate Initiative conducted by ORS Impact suggested that funders need to be more explicit and expansive in how they think about power, cede more to community partners than just the right to allocate dollars (such as the ability to determine goals or define strategy), and commit to longer-term power-sharing initiatives.

Philanthropy has become a complex system over more than a century of evolution. Changing philanthropy in ways that will make it less isolated and hierarchical, and more responsive to community voices and aspirations, will require many approaches and ideas. We continue to believe in the power of feedback, but we don’t need to choose between listening and participation or other thoughtful approaches. We need both, and more, to change philanthropy.

Melinda Tuan is managing director of Fund for Shared Insight.

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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