Looking to 2021: How Funder Listening Can Help Us Rebuild

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This article was originally published by Feedback Labs and is re-posted here with permission. Read more about how funders can listen well on GrantCraft by Candid and as part of the Council on Foundations’ series about implementing the COVID-19 foundation pledge!

As COVID-19 spread worldwide in early 2020, almost 800 leading philanthropists signed a pledge to act with ‘fierce urgency’ to support the people, communities and nonprofits hit hardest by COVID-19. Listening to nonprofit partners, as well as the people most affected by the pandemic and by the long-standing injustices that this year has laid bare, was a cornerstone of that pledge. Leading funders recognize that listening and responding to the partners and the people that are closest to the issues we’re trying to address prepares them to craft effective responses. Listening helps funders build the trust and deep relationships with their constituents that drive meaningful action and collaboration. Done well, listening helps build power in the people we ultimately seek to serve.

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s the link between listening and power that looms large in my mind. Many of us hope that 2021 will bring a COVID-19 vaccine and an end to rapidly rising case counts and death tolls. Some of us hope things will go back to normal. I hope we can find a new normal—a more equitable social system than the one that failed so many of us this year.

To do that, we need to build power in people who have been disempowered by our existing systems. And funders, with their control over resources and the high degree of power that imparts, play a critical role in helping shift power. Listening to the people they ultimately seek to serve – and in particular the most marginalized of their constituents—is one important way they can share their power. The more that ultimate constituents have a meaningful say in foundation decision making, the more foundation power will be shared with them. As Ford Foundation President Darren Walker says to his foundation peers, “[Foundations] ought to ensure that the people affected by our work are guaranteed a voice in its design and implementation…this is the philanthropy we need today.”

For funder listening to help shift power, funders need to recognize and invest in the three main lines of listening between funders, their grantees, and the people they ultimately seek to serve. All three lines of listening are essential, and they complement each other:

  1. Foundations listening to their grantees. This kind of listening is particularly important to help foundations understand how they can best support their grantees and make it as easy as possible for grantees to do excellent work.
  2. Grantees listening to the people they seek to serve. This kind of listening is particularly important to help grantees understand how to support communities and identify when they need to adapt their programs.
  3. Foundations listening directly to the people ultimately meant to benefit from their work. This kind of listening is particularly important to help foundations understand the needs and perspectives of people who they aim to serve who are being underserved in order to identify what organizations and strategies to fund.

The third line of listening, foundations listening directly to the people meant to ultimately benefit from their mission, is often overlooked. Yet it is essential, particularly during moments of crisis and as we seek to confront long-standing injustices. During these times, it’s essential to listen to people who are least heard and least served. They bear the brunt of long-standing inequities and oppressive racist policies and practices that are exacerbated during a crisis. They will also have valuable ideas for how to combat the problems they face. Foundation grantees are likely serving some but not all of these people, and so it is helpful for foundations to listen to marginalized people directly in order to understand who is being missed by existing grantee efforts. This listening complements grantees listening to the people they serve, rather than replacing or circumventing grantee listening.

Earlier this year, Feedback Labs released a framework to guide funder listening during moments of crisis, highlighting tips and examples of how foundations can listen to grantees and directly to the people they seek to serve in a way that builds toward a more resilient, equitable future. Here we distill three overall tips for strengthening each line of listening:

  1. Open multiple channels for listening to your grantees. Multiple listening channels help ensure that grantees can communicate with you in a way that is comfortable and convenient for them. This in turn increases the chances that you’ll hear honest, timely feedback. For example as COVID-19 spread across the US, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation started convening bi-weekly, optional grantee meetings that allowed the foundation to listen to grantee needs while also providing space for grantees to learn from and support each other. Short meetings, personal emails and individual phone calls can complement channels like grantee surveys.
  2. Give your grantees the support they need to listen and respond to the people they serve. It takes time and effort for grantees to listen to the people they seek to serve and then respond to what they hear. Foundations can support that work financially and by sponsoring grantees to participate in programs like Listen4Goodor trainings like the Feedback Crash Course. In addition to offering financial resources for listening, it’s imperative that foundations give their grantees the flexibility they need to respond to what they hear and signal that they are encouraged to evolve how they work in order to respond. For the Moses Taylor Foundation, for example, supporting their grantees’ ability to listen and respond during COVID-19 meant converting program grants to general operating support and relaxing reporting requirements.
  3. Collaborate to hear from the least-served and least-heard. Listening to people who are underserved by existing programs is a service that funders can perform for the sector at large, and no one funder needs to go it alone. It can be helpful to coordinate listening efforts with peer funders and other actors in your ecosystem, as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Polk Bros. Foundation, and the Field Foundation did when they launched the Chicago COVID-19 Journalism Fund. As a first step, scan the landscape to find organizations that are led by and proximate to the people you seek to serve who are not currently served by your existing grantees. Find ways to listen to them!

Foundations have a special role to play in listening to both their grantees and directly to the people intended to ultimately benefit from their mission, and in supporting their grantees to listen well. The Listening During COVID-19: A Framework for Funders contains many more practical steps funders can take to listen in a way that helps all of us build toward a more equitable, resilient future. And Feedback Labs offers many more free webinarsresourcesbrainstorming sessions and trainings that can help funders listen better during and beyond this moment of crisis.

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.