Using our Power to Recenter Voice

Clara Bennett, Joshua Elder, Katie Ensign, Lexi Mairone & Veronica Olazabal

This is the first in a series of posts contributed by the Feedback Incentives Learning Group, a group of funders dedicated to encouraging peer funders to listen to the people most harmed by the systems and structures they seek to change and to supporting their grantees to listen as well. In this blog series, learning group members share their insight into and experiences with encouraging foundations and nonprofits to listen and respond to the people who are most impacted and often least consulted by philanthropy and nonprofits. We hope this series provides inspiration and guidance for those looking to listen better and, ultimately, encourages action.

For a long time, we funders have exerted our power to put ourselves at the center of our grantees’ world. We fund based on the strategies we set, thereby motivating our grantees to parse our every word for hints about what programs might be of interest to us. Every time we change our strategies, our grantees contort their programs to fit our new priorities rather than risk losing funding. When we become convinced that monitoring and evaluation, theories of change, or systems thinking are critical to success, our grantees scramble to add those practices to their already overflowing plates.

In exerting our influence as funders — sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously — we’ve created an entire system of incentives that reward our grantees for paying attention and responding to our needs, desires, and perspectives. This in turn makes it more difficult for our grantees to pay attention and respond to the needs, desires, and perspectives of the people who are at the heart of their work — the people who are most affected by the systems and structures our grantees are seeking to change.

It’s essential that our grantees be able to center the opinions and perspectives of the people that are most impacted by their decisions. Listening — and responding — to feedback from the people and communities at the heart of their work has helped nonprofits respond more effectively to changing client needs, repair relationships between staff and clients, and empower their clients to advocate for themselves. Done well, listening leads to better outcomes and helps shift power to the people and communities that are most harmed by the systems we’re seeking to change in a way that can contribute to greater equity. In times of crisis, listening is even more critical.

When grantees don’t have the space to listen and respond to the people at the heart of their work, their work is less effective and less equitable. Erica Kohl-Arenas, associate professor in American Studies at the University of California, Davis, has detailed the devastating effects that a focus on funder priorities and opinions has had on grassroots movements. Foundation funding to the California Farmworkers movement in the 1960s diverted the movement away from farmworker-led priorities and strategies. Funders leveraged their influence to shift the movement away from organizing and collective ownership toward the non-profit service model that funders preferred.

We’ve each witnessed the effects of a system that rewards nonprofits for centering foundation priorities in our own grantmaking. Even when we fund in a way that tries to enable grantees to center the needs and priorities of the people at the heart of their work, our grantees, rightly, don’t always trust our intentions. Funders need to be aware of and actively chip away at the distrust that our actions have created. We will probably always have strategies that guide our funding, so we need to work doubly hard to make room for grantees to center the voices and opinions of the people who are most harmed by the systems and structures they seek to change with their work. As Megan Ming Francis, associate professor of Political Science and associate professor of Law, Societies and Justice at the University of Washington puts it, “foundations need to look internally to foundation processes that have undermined movements; externally, funders need to do much better at trusting the vision of organizers from communities most affected by an issue.” It’s up to us as funders to heal the misaligned and broken system that we’ve created.

One way we can do that is by changing our internal structures and processes to create more space and support for our grantees to recenter the voices of the people most impacted by their work, who are often least consulted. As members of the Feedback Incentives Learning Group, we’re working with like-minded funders to explore how we can do that. Our goal is not to incentivize or pressure grantees to add yet another priority or competency to their plates because we think it’s important. Our goal is to genuinely and radically give our grantees the space to put their focus where it always should have been and where so many of them want it to be — on the voices, perspectives and opinions of the people at the heart of their work.

As a group, we’re learning what it takes to create space for our grantees to focus on those voices. We’ve seen that when we create space for our grantees to listen to the people at the heart of their work — rather than focusing on our opinions and perspectives — they gladly take it. For instance, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund has found that grantees are drawn to listening to the people most affected by their decisions as a means to support better evaluation and greater equity in their programs. Another member of our group, Fund for Shared Insight, has learned that a small amount of financial support can be enough to help a nonprofit prioritize listening in their work. They’ve seen a $6,000 grant be just as effective at encouraging nonprofits to improve how they listen as a $30,000 grant.

We’re also finding that it’s important to help grantees approach listening from a place of inquiry and curiosity. Grantees have questions that the people at the heart of their work are best positioned to help answer. As funders working with many grantees, we can use our bird’s-eye view to see how listening has worked well for some of our grantees, share those stories with other grantees, and make the case for why listening is important. The Jessie Ball duPont Fund is gaining traction by investing resources in building a toolbox for listening that grantees can dip into, with no ramifications on their funding. The Fund is working to be inclusive about who gets capacity building grants and up-front about the time commitment it takes to benefit from them.

More importantly, as a group we’re learning about what it takes to convince other funders to listen better — not just to their grantees, but to the people who are most impacted by their grantmaking, who they often consult the least. We can’t ask our grantees to listen well if we don’t join them on that journey. For funders to genuinely say listening is important, we need to be able to hold the mirror up to ourselves and demonstrate how we listen more meaningfully.

Lexi’s colleague at Humanity United, Ryan Heman, has seen how important it is for funders to walk the walk alongside grantees. As he tried to build a sense of mutual transparency with grantees, he realized he was holding his own cards close to his chest. He was asking grantees to share their learning, ideas, and frustrations openly, but wasn’t doing the same in return. That created a situation where grantees felt uncomfortable being candid with him. Now, Ryan tries to open conversations with grantees with updates on Humanity United and answers to grantees’ questions so that they can more successfully navigate and design their relationship. He has sought to redefine his role as “going to bat for” grantees rather than merely serving an oversight or accountability function.

As funders, we need to be able to embody the same credibility and honesty when sharing our own journey to listen better. That journey isn’t always easy. We hear a lot of concerns and barriers when we talk to fellow funders about listening better. They feel they don’t have the time or the capacity to listen well and they worry about hearing negative feedback they can’t respond to. Listening can feel like something that monitoring, evaluation, and learning colleagues take care of. Rigid plans make it difficult to adapt based on feedback, and philanthropic culture that values guidance from traditional academic and sectoral ‘experts’ leaves little space to consider dissenting views from people themselves.

As a group, we’re collecting powerful examples of how funders are overcoming these barriers. And we’re hopeful that we can convince funders across the sector to join us in using our power to put the focus on the voices of the people who are most impacted and often least consulted by philanthropy. We know that funders listen to their peers above all other sources of information, and we’re seeing that when we bring funders together in social spaces with their peers the ideas and motivation to listen better multiply.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about centering the people who are most harmed by the systems and structures we seek to change with our work. Their feedback should be incorporated into strategy decisions at least as equally as the conventional academic or sector experts we currently consult. If we asked our fellow funders if centering those voices in decision-making was important, they would absolutely say yes. It’s aligned with their values, and many of them have listened deeply to communities throughout their careers. But the processes and priorities that often dominate their day-to-day work capture their attention and listening to the people at the heart of their work gets left by the wayside. We want to help foundation staff act on their values and follow through on their intent to listen well and enable their grantees to listen.

It’s on us as funders to change the way we and our colleagues wield the power we hold over resources and decisions, so that we and our grantees can be responsive to the people who are most impacted by our work and who we traditionally have consulted the least. If you want to join us in this work:

Clara Bennett is a principal on the learning and impact team within the strategy group at Omidyar Network. Joshua Elder is the director of grants management at Siegel Family Endowment. Katie Ensign serves as vice president for placemaking & administration at the Jesse Ball duPont Fund. Lexi Mairone (she/her) is a program manager at Humanity United. Veronica Olazabal is chief impact and evaluation officer at The BHP Foundation, president of the American Evaluation Association (AEA) and teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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