May 22, 2019
From the President

Listening Across Difference

Jennifer Thomas

In May, I attended the conference of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) in Minneapolis. This conference is attended by many of the largest and most influential foundations in the United States. Normally at this conference there is optimistic talk about foundation effectiveness and progress. But this year the mood was more somber and self-critical. There was much reflection on philanthropy’s privilege and the need for approaches that are more inclusive and supportive of grantees. It is likely that this mood was set by a climate in the United States today that is divided and resentful.

There is an angry critique of elites and of those who are removed from the enormous challenges faced by everyday Americans, especially people of colour. This critique is explicit in the recent books by journalists Anand Ghiridharadas and foundation leader Edgar Villanueva. Foundation leaders are being told that they are part of the unequal system that their philanthropic work seeks to change. In response, foundation leaders are questioning themselves about how to be more inclusive, and to work to overcome the divisiveness and rancor of public debate. They acknowledge that to be effective, philanthropy needs more than ever to listen to grantees and beneficiaries, to be willing to have “difficult conversations” and to challenge philanthropy’s own privilege.

A vision of philanthropy’s constructive response in the face of these disturbing critiques was sketched at the conference by the ever-eloquent Grant Oliphant, President of the Heinz Endowments and Chair of the CEP Board. He described philanthropy’s role as “holding the space” or creating the container in which creativity, compassion, dialogue, and the sharing of values can take place. This was echoed by others who argued that philanthropy must “protect the space” where our differences are made manifest – the public square, the right to assembly, the space for protest. Philanthropy must defend civil society from the forces that want to shut it down.

John Inazu, a professor at Washington University in St Louis, and author of a recent book Confident Pluralism spoke about the urgency of finding common ground across difference. The reality of difference must be acknowledged but there is a way to work with it as well. His words of advice to philanthropy: “get out of your own echo chamber and talk in person as much as possible, not online; think about who is in the room; try to empathize with others around your shared humanity; employ humility, tolerance, patience.” As one of the panelists at the conference urged, foundations should not treat “safe spaces” as places where there is no disagreement. On the contrary in these spaces, “the only things being challenged are your wits, and for God’s sake, give them some work. It is healthy to have tension and have your ideas pushed.”  And don’t forget that “who is in the room usually determines which questions are asked.”

It’s not easy to engage in these dialogues, especially with those who have very different views or who are angrily opposed to you. The challenge for foundations is to make a  more structured commitment to creating opportunities for listening and obtaining feedback. Some valuable suggestions in this regard have been made by Larry Kramer, President of the Hewlett Foundation. In a lengthy recent article, Listening To The People Who Think We Are Wrong, Kramer notes that a public sphere dominated by take-no-prisoners politics is a threat to “the future of democratic government, which presupposes disagreement and depends on willingness to work through and across differences from a sense of shared community.”

Kramer recommends learning to listen with empathy, which he believes is an exercise that anyone can adopt even though it is challenging. “Attending dispassionately to ideas we abhor is neither easy nor natural. It requires discipline and self-honesty: an exercise of mental muscles that, like any muscle, need regular use to stay fit and strong. But if we are to make progress as a society, few things are more important than keeping these particular muscles healthy – and this is true whether what’s at stake is naming a falsehood, prevailing in a contest of will or political power, or finding room to compromise.”

Kramer knows that the best way to listen empathetically is simply to do it. So, at the Hewlett Foundation, he has asked staff to spend focused time hearing from – and listening to – people who question Hewlett’s work and strategies. Hewlett staff in each program of the foundation are inviting speakers who fundamentally disagree with the program’s strategies to present their arguments. Then, in a second meeting, the team discusses what they heard and what they learned. Kramer suggests that this will not be a one-time occurence but an ongoing process of engagement with the full range of thinking in a field.

This is another way for philanthropy to create or “hold the space” for dialogue and listening. Not simply for the public square but also for the internal “square” of a foundation board or staff table. Kramer is right to point out that for those privileged to work in philanthropy, “privileged to steward resources, with the responsibility to use them as best we can to make the world a better place”, it is a duty to practice listening with empathy across difference. This is the difficult but necessary path for philanthropy especially in these divided times.

For further reflection about the CEP conference read this blog post by Lori Bartczak, Senior Director of Knowledge and Content, Community Wealth Partners: Taking Down the Ivory Tower a Brick at a Time.

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Comments
  • Homeworkdoer
    Reply

    Day 1 concluded with a “Clips and Conversations” event, in partnership with Media Impact Funders, featuring the award-winning documentary, Time For Ilhan. The film tells the story of Representative Ilhan Omar’s underdog candidacy for the Minnesota State House of Representatives, prior to becoming the first Somali-American woman elected to Congress. Leading in conversation was Norah Shapiro, the film’s director, Vince Stehle, executive director of Media Impact Funders, and Shawn Escoffery, executive director of the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation. The panel led a discussion that covered funding and maximizing new voices through film, taking chances to drive change, and why philanthropy should help amplify the voices of marginalized communities and support narrative change. For those who would like to watch Time for Ilhan in its entirety, it’s available to stream on Amazon.

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