Turning the Rhetoric of Listening Into Genuine Practice

Valerie Threlfall

During the past 15 years, I’ve spent a lot of time (some might say an unusual amount, even) thinking about the importance of gathering and responding to feedback from the people social sector programs are designed to help.

I initially got the “feedback bug” in 2008 when I served as founding director of YouthTruth, a student survey program at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. With YouthTruth, I saw the power that young people’s feedback could have to improve school operations, teaching, and culture in ways that truly serve them. (Twelve years later, YouthTruth has now surveyed more than 1.3 million students across 39 states and five countries.)

Since that experience, I’ve made systematic listening an underlying principle and methodological underpinning of my work. In my current work at Ekouté, we seek to help organizations ground their decision-making processes — from strategy to measurement — in high-quality and authentic input from the people their programs are designed to serve. A core Ekouté project is leading Listen4Good, a national capacity-building effort of the Fund for Shared Insight that helps nonprofits build high-quality client feedback loops.

Through these experiences, my colleagues and I have been able to help service providers of all stripes create and sustain dedicated practices for listening. Gradually, we’ve seen behavior start to shift in the nonprofit sector. But there’s one part of the broader social sector that’s consistently proven a tougher nut to crack: foundations.

Research and media activity continue to suggest that listening is an important stated priority for foundations, but, in practice, change has been slow going. Consider CEP’s report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective. The report found that 69 percent of foundation CEOs describe listening to end clients as having significant potential for impact, yet more than half of funders interviewed for the study also “expressed concerns that real, on-the-ground listening is either limited or nonexistent.”

Given this context, I was excited when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation commissioned Ekouté to conduct a landscape scan of foundation listening practices. Through research and interviews with 20 different foundations, our goal was to examine to what extent and in what ways foundations are really listening and making different decisions based on the perspectives of those they seek to help.

Our scan looked at listening practices from a few vantage points, including how listening efforts differ depending on a foundation’s approach to strategy as well as where the foundation is in its life cycle (e.g. strategy origination, implementation, refresh, or exit).

What we saw were a few foundations boldly experimenting with listening, championed internally by a small number of individuals, but a field still in many ways comfortable in its old ways, steeped in exclusivity and privilege. As one program officer from an international foundation included in the scan described, “The failing here is for our team to actually walk the walk, rather than just say we have these principles. There’s a big gap between what we say and what we do.”

Indeed, foundation ambitions, intent, and rhetoric when it comes to listening continue to eclipse actual practice on the ground. This is especially true at larger national and international foundations that tend to be focused on systems-level interventions. At these foundations, listening can be more complicated, but it is just as critical — especially given the large volume of resources at play.

Seeing this gap could easily make one cynical about the prospects for effective listening. But we saw reason for optimism in our research as well.

In those pockets of the foundation world where listening is happening, it tends to be occurring during strategy origination, we learned. This matters because it is one of the most important places for listening, given it’s where priorities are set and people are made accountable to them. So it is encouraging that, among the examples of listening we uncovered in our scan, two-thirds were in strategy origination.

Let me provide a few examples of what this work looks like:

The Vancouver Foundation created youth advisory bodies to inform the design and focus of two of its policy initiatives: one focused on immigrant and refugee youth and another focused on youth transitioning out of foster care. As part of these engagements, youth advisors met regularly with Foundation staff to learn about the policy landscape and to help define relevant policy issues for the Foundation to target. (The Foundation has captured the lessons learned from its process and shared them publicly here.)

The California Health Care Foundation, which focuses on improving California’s healthcare delivery system for those whose needs are not well served by the status quo, conducted its “Listening to Mothers” survey to inform the Foundation’s approach to maternal health. The survey allowed the Foundation to elevate underrepresented voices in healthcare, such as Black women and non-English speakers, and shined a light on the negative experiences and outcomes of Black mothers in particular — confirming to the Foundation the need to work on birth equity as a strategic priority.

Beyond these two cases, our research identified more than 12 ways in which funders are approaching listening — from community-level research to listening tours to indirect listening through grantees. Interestingly, we learned that many of the direct approaches foundations are using to connect with people impacted by their work are methods they’re already using regularly to gather input from other more advantaged stakeholders like grantees and donors. This suggests to me that the gap in practice may be easier to bridge than foundation staff think.

One must acknowledge, however, that these bright spots are not enough to ignite systemic change. To embed listening practices in a sustained way, foundations individually and collectively must embrace a comprehensive approach that leverages both “will” and “skill.”

When we asked foundations about some of the key ingredients for shifting to a listening mindset, the issue of will, or intention, came to the fore. Program staff frequently commented on the importance of leadership’s commitment to the work. “I do think that it is probably necessary to have support and maybe even a mandate from your board and executive leadership,” noted one interviewee. Moreover, staff often pointed to the amalgamation of small experiments internally as a way of building organizational buy-in and experience.

For listening to become routine, foundations need to view the practice as a set of interconnected muscles that must be continually exercised and strengthened throughout all areas of the organization. Foundations must:

  1. highlight why listening is of critical value for the organization and honestly examine core elements of resistance to change;
  2. experiment to determine the best listening approaches that work for their context;
  3. ensure that listening is done in a high-quality way, leveraging best practices; and
  4. implement means for holding staff accountable to these new sets of expectations.

At the individual level, strengthening this muscle will take intention, humility, and persistence — as most of the hardest changes in life do. Institutionally, foundations need to build the scaffolding, rigor, and structures to create the conditions for these new ways of operating to stick.

Foundations can make huge improvements in how they engage with the people they seek to help and, relatedly, in how effective they are in funding solutions to improve their lives. Listening is a core elemental step on this journey.

Valerie Threlfall is principal of Ekouté Consulting and managing director of Listen4Good. Follow her on Twitter at @valthrelfall.

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