October 24, 2017
From the President

Listen. Learn. Act.

By Hilary Pearson

“Good grantmaking is good relationship-making” said a panelist at the PFC 2017 Symposium  held in Montreal on Oct 17-18.

Listening, learning and acting are all key components of creating and maintaining good relationship.   The 200 participants at the Symposium had an opportunity to explore approaches to better listening and learning through a series of sessions focused on building foundation and community capacity to engage in dialogue. This is not an easy or simple task. It is no accident that “listen” is the first action we are urged to take as funders.  But listen to who? Listen for what? Listen how?

We drew useful insights from the many thoughtful and experienced speakers, coming from both the funder and the recipient side of the grantmaking relationship:

  • How funders listen is related to context, intent and capacity. All must be considered. For example, are you a place-based funder? Is your intention to engage in participatory grantmaking? Do you have the capacity if you are a funder with little or no staff to reach out and listen? Your answers to these questions about context, intent and capacity determine your need to listen, how you want to listen and what you need to listen well.
  • Listening well in a relationship between funder and community can run up against issues of power (imbalances) and widely differing life experiences, perspectives and beliefs. Being aware o f these imbalances and doing our work as funders before going into a relationship are essential to effective work together.
  • It’s important to think about creating good and “safe” spaces for dialogue. Vulnerable people, especially youth and those with less power (marginalized for many reasons), need safe spaces in which to speak.
  • Accountability is important. You don’t simply listen as a funder.  You also commit to response.  Being accountable for how one responds (fully, honestly, transparently, timely) is also an essential element in building relationship.
  • Can we listen as funders with “open ears”? this means thinking about and testing for what would otherwise be “unconscious” biases and assumptions.
  • We need to think about practicing conversations that can be difficult. We don’t always agree on problem diagnosis or on solution. How do we listen to build on each other’s ideas not just to refute them?  Taking five minutes, waiting to formulate a response until you have heard someone out, even just taking a breath…. good things to practice in advance.
  • We should consider, if we want to listen better as funders, getting some training in empathy, learning from discomfort, accepting that things don’t go the way we want or expect them to. Patience and trust in process are two critical things to help conversations and collaborations succeed.
  • In smaller foundations, where there is little or no capacity at staff level, the board becomes a mechanism for bringing community voice into the room. We need to pay particular attention to boards as decision-makers.  Can we broaden beyond family members, friends, advisors, people with power, to include community members, other generations, people who don’t look, sound or think like us?
  • How do we go the next step and collect information about and from our community partners? What do we need to know and what do they need to know for us to have effective discussions? Our practices and processes can be barriers to good listening and exchange…and we need to be mindful of how we can help community partners collect their own feedback from the people we are all interested in helping.

It was a terrific set of conversations in Montreal!  And ones that we will be sure to pursue at the next PFC Conference, coming up Oct 16-18 in 2018, in Toronto.

Head to the PFC 2017 Symposium site for photos, videos and resources coming soon!

Related posts

  • Moving Beyond Good Intentions

    Jillian Witt Community Engagement Consultant for The Philanthropist, explores some of the common threads regarding self-reflection and shifting power asked of funders at the PFC Symposium in Montreal in October 2017.


  • Listen. Learn. Act: Further Reflections on Philanthropic Practice

    In her latest blog piece, PFC president, Hilary Pearson, reflects further upon the “community of practice” that has developed over the years through various PFC Fall events.


  • 2017: The Year We Talk About Listening and Belonging?

    Despite Canada’s favourable global attention in 2017, PFC President, Hilary Pearson, questions if our supposed social harmony is as harmonious as all that and what is organized philanthropy’s role in moderating the pressures and conflicts brought about by urbanization and immigration, in her latest blog post?


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