Listening During Crisis: An Essential Competency

As the COVID-19 death toll rises around the world, economic recession leads to hunger and insecurity, and police brutality in the US lays bare long-standing inequities, foundations around the globe have switched into crisis mode. This moment of crisis invites us to confront entrenched, systemic inequities and vulnerabilities. So how can foundations rise to the occasion? This is a question we are increasingly being asked at Feedback Labs, so what follows is advice from our experience in building greater sector effectiveness.

One key to stepping up during a crisis is listening. Listening - especially to the people we ultimately seek to serve - has the power to make our work more effective and more equitable. The more than 750 philanthropic leaders who have signed the Council on Foundations COVID-19 pledge recognize listening, especially to communities that are least heard, as one of eight key actions that funders can take to confront COVID-19 effectively. The leading foundations that form Fund for Shared Insight believe that listening and responding to constituents supports our quest for equity.

Listening is especially critical during a crisis and as we seek to address long-standing injustice. In a quickly changing context, we need to hear from our constituents - be they our grantees or the communities we seek to serve - in order to understand how their needs and abilities are changing. As we work to build power in communities that are oppressed or marginalized, listening can help. In this era of social distancing, we can’t always be at the frontlines to see what’s going on - but voices from the frontlines can still reach us. Organizations with strong listening practices, like the Moses Taylor Foundation, have been able to act quickly and decisively to confront COVID-19 because they were listening to their constituents. 

But what if your foundation doesn’t already have a strong listening practice? It can feel daunting to contemplate taking on new activities at a moment when you and your colleagues already feel stretched thin. Improving how you listen is absolutely worth doing and will give you important insights to help you make better decisions that you can’t access any other way. During a crisis, that’s especially essential. But how, practically speaking, can you get started?

  1. Get your colleagues on board. As a first step, take stock of who at your foundation is on board with the idea of listening and responding to the voices of your constituents. It may be that you have colleagues who are already finding effective ways to listen, from whom you can learn. Or perhaps a senior decision maker or board member is a feedback champion and can help you build a mandate to listen better.
  1. Plan to close the loop from the get-go. Listening is only effective if you act on what you hear and let the people you listened to know how you responded to what they said. That’s called ‘closing the loop.’ If you don’t close the loop, the people who give you feedback may feel like you wasted their time or didn’t respect their views enough to act. That can be disempowering and demotivating. Conversely, closing the loop can help strengthen your relationship with your constituents and promote richer conversation. Good practice to help you close the loop include:
    • Be transparent about your boundaries. If certain decisions are not currently up for discussion or you’re constrained in how you’ll be able to respond to feedback, share that at the beginning of the listening process. This can help you manage expectations and avoid disappointing your constituents.
    • Plan to reflect and respond. Before you launch your listening exercise, identify how and when you will reflect on what you’re hearing and decide how to respond. Pre-planned moments of reflection and decision making make it more likely that you will respond to what you hear.
    • Meet constituents where they are. Take the time to understand how your constituents prefer to hear from you and use their preferred channels to report back on what you heard from them and how you responded. Closing the loop using platforms that your constituents use regularly increases the chances that they’ll hear how you responded.
  1. Start where you are and iterate. No organization becomes expert in listening overnight, which is one of the reasons we talk about the feedback High-quality listening and responding to feedback is an ongoing, iterative process, not a one-off exercise. And that’s good news for foundations that are embarking on their listening journey - you can start where you are and improve as you iterate over the course of multiple feedback loops! There are many tools to help you start listening during a crisis like COVID-19.

As you listen and respond to your constituents, take time to reflect on how you can improve your foundation’s listening competencies. The Feedback Quiz and filling out the How We Listen section on your foundation’s profile on GuideStar by Candid offer two helpful opportunities for reflection that can help you pinpoint concrete, easy first steps to improving your foundation’s listening practice.

Listening is especially important during a moment of crisis and as we seek to address long-standing injustice. The steps to embarking on your listening journey are easier than you think. We’ve outlined three key tips here, and Feedback Labs offers many more free tools that can help you listen better during and beyond this moment of crisis.

 

For more about listening and feedback, check out our continuation of this discussion on the Council on Foundations blog and on the Feedback Labs blog.