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What Does It Mean for Funders to Listen Well?

Date: April 4, 2024

Rick Moyers

Communications Director, Fund for Shared Insight

Sabrina Hargrave

Vice President of Programs, Brooklyn Org

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This is the second in a series of posts contributed by the Feedback Incentives Learning Group, a group of funders convened by Feedback Labs that are dedicated to encouraging peer funders to listen to the people most harmed by the systems and structures they seek to change. In this blog series, learning group members share advice for how grantmaking staff can listen and respond to the people who are most impacted by their work. The first blog in the series is here

Last year, an organization we both respect sent a provocative video message to funders. “You need to stop doing community engagement.”

Because both our organizations, Fund for Shared Insight and Brooklyn Org (formerly Brooklyn Community Foundation), have strong commitments to listening — one form of community engagement — we were surprised. And resistant. We think funders should listen more, not less.

But we understood the point. The problem the video was highlighting is not that funders are listening too much, it’s that they’re not listening well. Because listening, like almost anything else, can be done poorly. And, as the Full Frame Initiative points out in their video, listening poorly can cause more harm than not listening at all.

Communicating this distinction, between extractive or performative listening and meaningful listening that leads to real change, has been a communications challenge since the Fund for Shared Insight began its work more than a decade ago. Adding to the difficulty is that listening is a common term, used in everyday conversation. Most funders and nonprofits believe they know what listening means, and think they already do a lot of it. The real issue lies in how they are listening, who they are listening to, and what they do with what they hear.

When our organizations talk about the importance of listening, we’re referring to a practice and a way of being that goes beyond asking thoughtful questions at site visits, convening community members to provide input on a new strategic direction, or surveying grantees to find out whether the online application system is easy to use. We’re talking about inclusive, systematic listening that engages nonprofits and community members as partners and co-creators and builds trust and accountability by reporting back to the community on what was heard and plans to respond.

In the past, we’ve sometimes used “high-quality listening” to describe this distinction. But high-quality, like strategic or innovative, can mean different things to different folks. So lately we’ve been using the phrase “listening, responding, and shifting power” to signify that listening is just the first step — without action it can be an empty gesture — and that one of the aims of listening should be to address the inequities and power imbalances that characterize philanthropy and the broader society. We’ve been encouraging other funders to listen well, and trying to model that in our own practices.

What, Exactly, Does it Mean to Listen Well?

First, listening well is listening with both the intention and the ability to respond. This means listening at a time when you are still gathering information, before solutions and responses are fully formed — when what you hear can inform and influence plans for action, rather than simply reinforce or justify what you’ve already decided to do.

Brooklyn Org, for example, recently shifted its grantmaking from medium- and long-term strategies, where community engagement was completed just once at the onset of a new fund or strategy, to responsive grantmaking informed by annual listening tours in which a cross section of stakeholders, mostly non-grantees, participate. Hearing from people about what’s going on in their neighborhoods, along with gathering their field knowledge and takes on current events, help the foundation prioritize its investments. It also spurs staff to analyze trends and research issues new to the foundation.

Moving from listening to responding can be tricky. Most of us work in hierarchical organizations in which we may have limited decision-making power. Restrictions imposed by donors and institutional policies, priorities, and focus areas can also limit the ways we can respond to what we hear. But that doesn’t mean that listening isn’t worthwhile. Policies, priorities, focus areas, and even donor restrictions can be changed, after all, and listening can be a powerful way to gather evidence that such changes are needed.

If near-term change is not in the cards, funders should be transparent at the outset about why they are listening and what may limit their ability to fully respond. Brooklyn Org is clear at the start of each listening tour session that, given limited resources, the goal is not to fund the initiatives represented by the individuals in the room, but to understand what is going on in their neighborhoods in a way that can inform broader spending strategies.

Listening Broadly

The second aspect of listening well is listening broadly. One of the things we hear most frequently from funders is that they listen to the community by listening to their grantees. And while we believe that grantees are important constituents that should be listened to, we also believe that funders should listen beyond grantees. For most funders, their grantees make up only a subset of all the organizations working in a community and on a given issue — the subset that has most effectively engaged with the funder and successfully navigated current policies and processes. Since interacting only with grantees can create an echo chamber, it is imperative that funders proactively reach out to and engage stakeholders from different sectors and nonprofits that they have not funded previously.

Listening broadly also means taking additional steps to hear from those in the community whose voices are often marginalized. This demands that funders listen in different ways depending on the issue area and the listening agenda. Among the many issues to consider include how to hear from people with disabilities, people whose first language isn’t English, or those whose caregiving responsibilities make scheduling a challenge. Listening to those groups may mean compensating participants for their time, reimbursing them for transportation costs, offering childcare or translation services, conducting listening activities outside the normal business day in locations that are accessible and familiar to participants, or any number of other efforts to ensure that people and communities often overlooked can participate.

Closing the Loop

A third aspect of listening well is closing the loop — reporting back to those who participated on what you heard and how you’re planning to respond. Shared Insight has learned through its work with the feedback capacity-building program Listen4Good that closing the loop can be one of the most challenging and neglected steps in the feedback process. The same holds true for other types of listening.

However, closing the loop is essential to building trust and accountability with people who have taken the time to share their experience and insights. Why should community members keep showing up for listening sessions, focus groups, or interviews with consultants if they see no evidence that they’ve been heard or that anything is changing as a result? Closing the loop doesn’t have to be elaborate or highly structured. Brooklyn Org holds annual webinars for listening tour participants and community members to learn what the foundation has heard, and it plans to hold larger, in-person town halls every couple of years to share what it has learned and how it’s changing in response.

These three concepts — listening with intention and ability to respond, listening broadly, and closing the loop — are at the heart of what it means for funders to listen well. There’s more to it, of course. We believe that listening should be an ongoing activity, not just a one-time exercise or something done every few years. And that listening ought to be integrated into an organization’s work, informing strategy, program innovation, and planning for the future. The most effective listening engages community members as partners and participants at different stages of the listening process itself — helping to design listening sessions and activities, making sense of what is learned, and considering responses.

If you’re reading this and thinking that listening well sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. And for some funders, listening may feel like “extra” work, layered on top of existing application and review processes, site visits, and board and committee work. Listening well also creates the opportunity for funders to hear critical feedback or to learn things that conflict with what we think we already know, both of which may create discomfort.

But listening also creates the opportunity to center our work on the needs, experiences, and aspirations of the people and communities most impacted by our decisions. In terms of mission and impact for philanthropy, we can’t think of any work that’s more important.

Rick Moyers is communications director at Fund for Shared Insight. Sabrina Hargrave is vice president of programs at Brooklyn Org.

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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