How Can You Help Us If You Don’t Know Us?

Melinda Tuan

At Fund for Shared Insight, the funder collaborative I have the privilege of managing, our mission is to help foundations and nonprofits meaningfully connect with each other and with the people and communities they seek to help — and be more open to their input and feedback. It has been so encouraging to see CEP embrace the task of helping foundations listen not only to the nonprofits they fund (through the Grantee Perception Report), but also, increasingly, to the organizations’ end beneficiaries.

At the 2017 CEP Conference in Boston, Equal Justice Initiative Founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson challenged all in attendance to “get proximate” to the people we ultimately seek to help. At that same conference, CEP partnered with Shared Insight to present a first-ever breakout session featuring not only funders, but also a nonprofit and its clients. Staff members from the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) were joined by CEO participants who shared their first-hand experiences receiving job-training and placement services, giving feedback, and having CEO act on their feedback. I reflected on that breakout session and how it related to Bryan’s keynote address in a post titled “Get Proximate: The Potential Power of Feedback Loops.”

At the 2019 CEP Conference in Minneapolis last month, I was so pleased to see CEP elevate to the plenary level its commitment to including voices of those with lived experiences. On the final day of the conference, Matthew Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, spoke about the root causes and devastating effects of evictions in a plenary session titled “Poverty, Eviction, and Exploitation: A Vicious Cycle.” After his keynote, Matthew was joined on stage by others for a facilitated conversation, which featured Luis Caguana and Tecara Ayler from Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia (Renters United for Justice) sharing their personal experiences with eviction.

Luis had just come from working a night shift to speak with us (in Spanish and through an offstage interpreter). He described his experience with eviction, saying: “Because we’re poor, we’re treated as if we’re objects; as if we’re pieces of trash.” Tecara shared her frustration with the numerous nonprofit organizations that came to the north side of Minneapolis to decide what should happen to her and other residents, and how these nonprofits “not once knocked on our door and asked us what we needed.”

We in philanthropy need to elevate and listen to the voices of those who are least heard — and act on what we hear. We need to, as Tecara challenged us, “door knock and engage,” because “how can you help us if you don’t know us?” Through Shared Insight’s signature initiative, Listen4Good, we are helping nearly 100 foundations across the U.S. partner with more than 200 of their grantees to listen to the people they seek to help. Based on a study conducted by our evaluation partner ORS Impact, we know that a majority of nonprofits are making changes to their programs, while at least one third are also making changes to their operations, how they interact with clients, or in offering new services based on what they are learning from feedback collected through Listen4Good. We also know from a different evaluation of Listen4Good that participating funders are also making changes. Nearly a third of co-funders say they are changing foundation practices based on what they have learned through Listen4Good, and we hope this percentage will continue to grow significantly over time.

Also at the conference, LaTida Smith, CEO of the Moses Taylor Foundation, which nominated five grantees to participate in Listen4Good, spoke about the program’s impact on her organization during a breakout session called “Unleashing the Power of Beneficiary Feedback Loops.” She said that the feedback one of Moses Taylor’s nonprofit partners is collecting from families participating in a school-based health program is informing the Foundation’s own strategy on supporting such initiatives. Inspired to listen and learn together with other funders, Moses Taylor is also organizing a regional funder collaborative that will together nominate additional nonprofits to participate in Listen4Good when applications for the next co-funded round become available next month.

The conference’s closing plenary, “Putting it Together: What Effective Philanthropy Looks Like Right Now,” put a stamp on the growing interest in and commitment to feedback from the people we seek to help that was so palpable in Minneapolis. Panelist Tony Richardson, executive director of the Nord Family Foundation, shared about his personal experience of homelessness as a child at age 10 and how that has impacted his approach to his work. Janine Lee, president and CEO of the Southeastern Council of Foundations, talked about being a product of domestic violence, alcoholism, and eviction — and how she brings her lived experience to her work in philanthropy today. And when Phil Buchanan, president of CEP, was asked what he is most proud of to date in his work at the organization, he cited how CEP is lifting up the voices of those least heard, including through the Grantee Perception Report and YouthTruth. He has also been excited, he said, to see institutions make changes based on what they learn from people who have otherwise not been given the opportunity to provide candid feedback.

Congratulations CEP on another successful conference. Thank you for modeling for us how we can elevate the voices of those who are least heard — and be changed by what we hear.

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

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