December 11, 2017
From the President

Where Next with Listening?

By Hilary Pearson

This has certainly been a year in which the benefits of listening, and the costs of not listening, have been more than ever apparent. Politics has provided plenty of examples. I imagine that you can think of examples in your own context of such benefits and costs. If you are convinced already that more listening is a great idea, how as a funder do you think about putting that into action?

Just in time for your holiday reflections on the ways in which you can do more active listening, we are gifted with a new guide by Cynthia Gibson, a consultant with Grantcraft and the Ford Foundation. Gibson has released a terrific thought piece, Participatory Grantmaking: Has Its Time Come?

Her subject is what she and others are now calling participatory grantmaking, meaning a process in which grantmakers work together with non-grantmakers to make better grants. There are many approaches to creating more participation in grantmaking, as Gibson makes clear. They can range from engaging non-funders in setting grant guidelines, to reviewing proposals and even deciding on grant allocations. At their heart, they involve a commitment to listening and to trusting partners outside the inner circle of the foundation. She provides many examples of participatory models and frameworks being tried in US philanthropy (it would be interesting to compare with what is being tried in Canada). Changing times are forcing changing approaches to doing philanthropic work. The pressures of expectations for transparency and accountability, the complexity of social issues as well as the changing preferences of younger generations are among the reasons why some grantmakers are inviting grantees and even beneficiaries into the grantmaking process.

Rightly, Gibson notes that there are many reasons why this is not an approach being tried yet by most foundations. These range from differences in strategies (mix of grantmaking, operating and investing), and confusions over accountability and measurement of impact, to the need for cultural shifts that are difficult to make. She acknowledges that participatory approaches can be time-consuming, expensive and challenging. Not for the faint of heart!  So what comes next?

Participation should matter to grantmakers. It offers empowerment, creativity, better decision-making, more collaboration and more trust between grantmaker and community. But to be actionable, participatory approaches need better definition (a shared understanding) and more specifics about practices that work. Gibson offers a useful discussion of participatory models and frameworks developed outside philanthropy, a section that is worth a read all by itself. Based on her experience and readings, she offers a “starter” framework for participatory grantmaking, providing suggestions for how grantmakers and non-grantmakers can work together from the pre-grant stage through the granting process to post-grant. She also suggests ways in which foundations can advance the approach more broadly by convening discussions, piloting a project and sponsoring research into participatory grantmaking. She provides a list of searching questions that could kickstart a discussion at a foundation board table or at a staff meeting.

We will explore some of these questions at our October 2018 PFC conference in Toronto. A conversation about how to build trust, to listen better and to value lived experience is very relevant to our conference theme Connect. Create. Change. We will be asking our community of PFC members to give us their best ideas on this subject and we certainly commit to listening well in 2018!

Looking Ahead to 2018: for those who are interested in some very well-informed and entertaining guesses about what the new year will bring in terms of change in philanthropy and the social economy, keep an eye out for Blueprint 2018, the latest future forecast by Lucy Bernholz, scholar at Stanford University and self-described philanthropy wonk. The Blueprint is scheduled for release on December 13 and is always well worth a read! Go to Lucy Bernholz’s blog site Philanthropy 2173 The Future of Good a terrific blog to bookmark by the way.

Related Posts

  • The Magic of Listening
    Former CKX Philanthropy Fellow and Managing Partner at Active Philanthropy and Beyond Philanthropy, Michael Alberg-Seberich, shares his insights about the unique state of philanthropy in Canada as observed from conversations at the 2017 PFC Symposium.


  • Listen. Learn. Act.
    In her latest blog piece, PFC President, Hilary Pearson, highlights some of the lessons learned about listening and learning effectively as funders that were shared during the 2017 PFC Symposium in Montreal on October 17 and 18.


  • The Two-Way Street
    Listening is a two way street. How does philanthropy ensure we are listening to the voices of various communities and asking the right questions to achieve impact with our funding programs?


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