Lending Ear and Raising Voice

Hilary Pearson

I have been thinking again in the last few weeks about the uses of language in philanthropy today. And reflecting not only about speaking language but also about listening to it. What is said and what is heard in a philanthropic conversation can be very different than what is intended, based on the interpretations by both speaker and listener. It is not simple or easy to find the language to connect and trust rather than to separate and silence. This is as true in philanthropy as in any other human sphere.

I have been thinking about this because we are hearing more voices in the conversation about philanthropy. We want to hear those voices. The challenge I see is how to bridge a gap between givers and receivers that may be created by what we say and how we hear. In a spring 2021 blog, I wrote about the implications of speaking in the language of grantmaker and grantee, beneficiary and funder, a distancing language which focuses on the transaction, not the relation, of philanthropy, and which highlights the embedded inequality between giver and receiver. In a summer 2021 blog, I commented on the listening side of philanthropic communication and the importance of “thoughtful attention”.  I acknowledge that this requires skill and individual traits, foremost being humility. To listen well means to keep an open mind about what you are hearing, and a willingness to alter your thinking because of what you hear.

The last six months have underlined the need for speaking words that connect rather than divide, and for listening with attention and an open mind. In politics and in the economy, the debates seem to be getting more divisive, not less. This is for many reasons, not least the frustrations and deprivations of the pandemic.  There is also the frustration and anger of people who have not had a voice or power for far too many years. It is difficult to use the language of relation rather than division in the face of the very real pain of injustice. In the context of philanthropy, words such as “privilege”, “supremacy”, “marginalizing”,“oppressive” and “control’ are being used as part of a language to articulate the anger that people feel about economic and political systems that have generated inequality and injustice as well as wealth for some.  These words are meaningful and important in specific contexts. But I find them troubling when used as ways to characterize all philanthropic funding. They obscure the way in which many funders are trying to shift their behaviour away from the exercise of power, through more inclusive practices of speaking and listening.

Funders must do their part to name injustice, to be more inclusive, to seek more equity. One of the ways of doing this is through a change in the use of our own language. We can learn much about the use of inclusive language from Indigenous practices. We can talk about engaging in “right relations” rather than grantmaking, in looking for collaborators or partners rather than grantees, in making gifts or exchanges rather than grants.  As funders work more closely with Indigenous partners our use of language can and will shift. This comment by Rhodri Davies (which I noted in my July 2021 blog) is relevant on the use of language: “Broadening our linguistic horizons [in philanthropy] is vital. It can help us to move away from reliance on forms of language and communication that entrench asymmetries of power, or which privilege certain forms of experience over others…it may even help us to experience our world differently (or at least understand the different ways in which others might experience it)”.

Similarly, funders can do more to listen with greater attention and openness…and to help their partners do so.  This is well expressed in Using Our Power to Recenter Voice, an interesting recent blog from the Feedback Incentives Learning Group, a US group of foundations and philanthropy support organizations “dedicated to exploring ways to support nonprofits and to motivate funders to listen and act on feedback from the people they ultimately aim to help”.  Their goal is to support and promote better listening, by funders of their partners, and by their partners of the people they serve.  This is a way to create equity and to build relationships of trust. It requires changes in foundation practice and a willingness to fund work by nonprofits themselves to invest in their listening capacity. The Learning Group offers a Funder Action Menu to help funders promote listening and feedback across their areas of work. They urge foundations to take the first steps: “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.”

There are encouraging signs of change in philanthropy as people work on their speaking and listening practices. What I hope is that this effort leads to more mutually supportive work.  If we can speak and listen to each other with honesty and respect, our philanthropic work in the future is likely to be characterized by deeper, better informed and more equitable relationships.

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