Are You Listening?

Hilary Pearson

I have been considering the importance of better listening over the last few days. Many voices are being raised in Canada calling for reflection, learning and inclusion in response to the grief and anger being expressed by Indigenous communities, and by other communities as well. People are talking about “hearing” these voices. That is necessary and important. But listening goes a step beyond hearing, I think, and it’s probably something we all need to practise more. It’s about hearing thoughtfully, or “with thoughtful attention” according to dictionary definitions. This requires some effort. It requires certain personal skills and traits, foremost being humility. To listen well also means to keep an open mind about what you are hearing, and perhaps a willingness to alter your thinking as a result of what you hear.  

How might this relate to the world of philanthropy? Private foundations are often criticized as bodies that aren’t well set up for listening. If they are local or place-based funders of direct services, their funding decisions don’t fully take into account the experiences and views of the people they are trying to help. If they are national or systems change-focused funders, they don’t pay sufficient attention to the views of those ultimately affected by the systems they are trying to change. While there are exceptions and examples to the contrary, in general foundations have trouble listening well. This is true even though listening well might make them much more effective, whether they are local or national, policy-focused or service-focused funders.

These are not just my observations. Many of them were made of American foundations in a 2019 study of foundation listening practices commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, known for its interest in effective philanthropic practice. This study, Bridging The Gap, offers some wise insights and options for funders who want to understand how to listen better. It defines listening for foundations as “efforts to consider the views, perspectives and opinions of the communities and people that a foundation seeks to help – and to incorporate these perspectives into strategic considerations and deliberations.”

As the study notes, many if not most foundations have good intentions about listening but stall at the activity stage. Understandably, for smaller foundations, it’s a lack of capacity (time and staff). For others it’s a worry about raising expectations among grantees, or concern about not getting honest feedback because of power imbalances, or the impediment of internal process barriers, or attitudes about the unreliability of or subjectivity of individual perspectives. For some, particularly those working at national or global levels on systemic efforts across populations, it’s a question of strategy. How to identify the voices of those who might be helped by a systems change? For many foundations, it is enough that their grantees do the listening for them and relay the perspectives or feedback indirectly to the funder.

The study authors rebut the reluctance of foundations to engage in direct listening by suggesting that “in almost all cases, foundations would benefit from building connections in some way with those they seek to help, primarily as a way to stay grounded.” They note that “for foundation initiatives that promote benefits that are almost akin to public goods (e.g. better functioning democracies, a healthier planet), scoping listening efforts can be particularly challenging….but there is likely value in experimentation to see if in fact, listening to the communities you are seeking to help with those public goods can shed new light on these efforts.” To help foundations think about how to overcome the barriers, the authors provide a menu of listening approaches, both broad and deep, ranging from listening tours to site visits to support for grantee-initiated listening efforts, as well as more intensive approaches such as focus groups, surveys, advisory committees, employing staff or bringing in board members who represent community, and even participatory grantmaking, where those who the foundation seeks to help are directly embedded in the decision-making.

Is this a good time for philanthropy to think harder about listening? The conversation about equity, inclusion and reconciliation in our country suggests that it is, very much so. And we have examples to learn from. Here are just three, from foundations of different sizes. The Lucie et Andre Chagnon Foundation conducted an extensive listening tour in Quebec among the communities of people it seeks to help in 2017-2018, followed by a survey. It shared its conclusions in an article in The Philanthropist. In 2020 during the pandemic the Lyle Shantz Hallman Foundation created space through its Support the Pivot grants for local organizations serving children and youth to reflect on how to adapt to the pandemic crisis; they brought in youth as advisors to help them assess the grant proposals. A joint initiative of the Counselling Foundation of Canada, Lawson Foundation, and Laidlaw Foundation pooled resources to collect feedback from grant recipients and to share the results in a 2018 report Grantee Voices: Strengthening Collaboration by Listening to our Grant Recipients.

The Hewlett study concludes that “listening is fundamentally an invitation to take in new perspectives and ways of thinking; however, for it to be systematic, it must be thought of as a set of muscles and structural reinforcements to be strengthened throughout an organization. Foundations, as institutions, must create cultures that are supportive of input, structures for carrying out high-quality listening, and the means for holding people accountable to these expectations. Internally, leadership must demonstrate an authentic interest in using this new information and signal that listening is a priority.” Good listening isn’t easy. But it’s both necessary and valuable in my view if philanthropy is to play its full and best role in our country.

Never miss a new post. Subscribe.