Fulfilling Philanthropy’s COVID-19 Pledge: Listening in a Time of Crisis

Valerie Threlfall, Melinda Tuan, and Fay Twersky

As COVID-19’s rapid spread has wreaked havoc on our sector, more than 550 foundations (at the time of writing) have signed a pledge to support our nonprofit partners and the people and communities hardest hit by the pandemic and associated economic impacts. The pledge includes eight commitments, ranging from being more flexible with timelines and reporting requirements to converting project grants to general support so that nonprofits can use the funds where they need them most.

The sixth commitment of the pledge focuses on listening to communities least heard, amplifying their voices, and considering their perspective in decision-making. Specifically, it reads:

Commit to listening to our partners and especially to those communities least heard, lifting up their voices and experiences to inform public discourse and our own decision-making so we can act on their feedback. We recognize that the best solutions to the manifold crises caused by COVID-19 are not found within foundations. 

Since the pledge was initiated several weeks ago, much has been written about the criticality of its other components. All are critical, but there has been much less focus placed on the importance of listening to people and communities who are most impacted, and whose voices are least heard.

Even in the best of times, that type of listening has not been philanthropy’s strong suit. As we have written before, the rhetoric about listening often outpaces actual practice. And now, when stress is so high and with so many competing demands on individuals, organizations, and communities, making the effort to listen may seem like a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” But we believe listening to all voices — especially voices least heard — is essential, particularly as funders seek to inform effective responses to the many requests coming their way.

There is no specific playbook for how foundations should listen during an unprecedented pandemic and global economic turmoil. But there is experience to build upon.

Drawing on what we learned from a recent Hewlett Foundation scan of foundation listening practices, and on our years of experience promoting the integration of voices least heard into organizational decision-making through Fund for Shared Insight and Listen4Good, we offer the following suggestions as an initial roadmap for foundations as they seek to act on their commitment to listen to grantees and affected communities right now:

1. Discern and be transparent about your boundaries. If some ideas are completely off the table, be clear about that with your grantees early on. Nothing is more frustrating to nonprofits than being invited by a funder to engage in a discussion about their needs, only to then be told afterward that everything they said is not doable. At the same time, be prepared to question previously held assumptions and to challenge yourself to engage in new ways.

2. Conduct open listening sessions. Many organizations are inundated with well-meaning surveys from funders. Instead, try more personal connections — aided by technology — to ask about concerns and specific needs. Many nonprofits are craving meaningful conversations with other organizations about how they are managing during this crisis.

Open listening sessions can enable mutual learning. For example, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, which normally convenes its learning community of grantees quarterly, has been convening them biweekly since the onset of the crisis in New York City. Convenings are optional and the agenda is set by grantee partners. Those virtual meetings not only provide the Foundation with an opportunity to listen, but also create a forum for participants to help and support each other as they manage through the crisis.

There are creative ways to hold open listening sessions to maximize input and reduce variability in technology access. These include video conferences, old-school conference calls, or even setting up a voicemail box to gather input and ideas. Across each of these, it is important to close the loop on open questions raised. (More on that below.)

Funders can also avoid redundant asks by learning from existing community conversations or piggybacking on others’ listening or data collection efforts. Reviewing social media conversations can provide an informal scan of issues affecting organizations and communities without imposing new demands.

3. Go deeper with a few organizations. Beyond open listening sessions, consider whether there are a few nonprofits or community leaders with whom you could listen more deeply. Look beyond the usual suspects and explicitly seek out those whose voices are typically not heard to ensure their perspectives and needs are represented. For example, in response to COVID-19, the Brooklyn Community Foundation immediately held calls with local groups serving elders, immigrants, and domestic workers to get a pulse on how they would be most impacted by the health crisis and to learn about how the foundation could help.

4. Consider whether you can involve a few grantees or community representatives in co-crafting responses based on identified needs. Again, you will need to be sensitive to the burden on individuals and organizations and consider equity in selecting these partners, while also compensating them for their time. With those measures, forming a small advisory group could be critical at this time to ensure that you stay grounded as you develop your strategy for responding in a time of crisis. For example, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) established COVID-19 response funds in close collaboration with community-based organizations and foundations who have ears to the ground in each of the 10 counties SVCF serves.

5. Identify responses that are easier to implement and make those first. If there are things that you can do relatively quickly, and that require fewer resources or permissions, do those as soon as possible to respond to immediate critical needs and affirm your commitment to being responsive.

6. Prioritize and test what you have heard. After initial listening, it can be important to follow up with nonprofits later to seek quick feedback, test responses and solutions, and check for flaws in your thinking. As this crisis extends, new needs will emerge and keeping a pulse on what is happening on the ground will be important. You will also have to eventually make some choices among responses. Testing those and exploring options with the communities and people you serve is critical.

7. Close the loop with the people who gave you input. After you have determined your response, make sure to tell people what you have decided, why you decided it, and how you reached those decisions. If you did not follow their advice, explain why. This can be done in a group format or one on one. The Moses Taylor Foundation in Scranton, PA, for example, is carefully closing the loop directly with all of its past and current grantees who have made requests for support, explaining why they can only meet a fraction of the need and offering access to other resources and referrals to other funders, whenever possible.

In this time of crisis, funders and nonprofits are facing critical decisions about how best to respond to mounting needs. As we navigate this challenging time together, listening is an essential practice that can help foundations and nonprofits be more meaningfully connected to each other and to the people and communities we seek to help.

By learning to listen effectively now, funders will emerge from this crisis as better partners to our grantees and to the people at the heart of our work. We have an opportunity, in more ways than one, to solidify new norms and ways of being. Let’s make it count.

Valerie Threlfall is principal of Ekouté Consulting and managing director of Listen4Good, an initiative of Fund for Shared Insight. Follow her on Twitter at @valthrelfall.

Fay Twersky is vice president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and co-chair of Fund for Shared Insight. Follow her on Twitter at @FayDTwersky.

Melinda Tuan is managing director of Fund for Shared Insight. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaTuan.

The authors extend thanks to Lori Grange and Lindsay Louie from the Hewlett Foundation, Rick Moyers from Fund for Shared Insight, and Britt Lake from Feedback Labs, who contributed to content in this post.

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