The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock to our systems. While we work to recover, it’s also important that we ask ourselves what we’ve learned from this experience and how we can be better prepared for the next crisis. Disease epidemics are becoming more likely and the damage from natural disasters is increasing globally – our preparedness is essential. For non-profits and funders, investing in strong listening practices now is a key way to ensure they’re better prepared for the next crisis.
Consider the example of the Moses Taylor Foundation. They had strong listening practices already in place when COVID-19 hit, which enabled them to respond to the pandemic better. Strong listening practices meant they already had a deep understanding of their grantees’ needs, capabilities and preferences, which enabled them to react quickly with effective support. Having existing dialogue channels meant they could more easily listen to emerging grantee needs and share information back to grantees. And they had built a foundation of trust through listening with their grantees that meant they heard more honest, open feedback about how COVID-19 was affecting grantees.
Non-profits and funders alike need to have strong listening practices in place with their constituents before a crisis hits. The relief phase, when lives are at risk and responders are overtaxed, is a difficult time to be listening to community or non-profit partner needs for the first time.
There are four key listening competencies that non-profits and funders should have in place before a crisis hits so that they are able to respond effectively, efficiently and equitably. Funders should ensure that their non-profit partners have these capabilities, and support them to develop them if they do not. Funders should also take stock of their capabilities against this list and invest in improving their listening practices, if needed, as an essential part of crisis preparedness.
1. Generating Trust and Mutuality: The purpose of good listening is not only to ensure effective, efficient and equitable services but also to build relationships of trust and mutuality with the people we seek to serve. This is a key part of ensuring that listening is a respectful process that helps share power with the people we seek to serve. And we have seen from past crises like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that when communities and responders trust each other, relief efforts are more effective.
2. Engaging in Dialogue to Make Meaning: It’s important to involve people in making sense of the feedback or input that they have given. Dialogue between the people being listened to and the organization that is listening often results in better solutions and next steps than either could come up with on their own, and is a meaningful way of sharing decision-making power with people. This type of dialogue also helps avoid a situation where the organization that is listening feels they only have two choices – to do what people say they want or maintain the status quo.
3. Coordinating listening within and across organizations: Listening by non-profits and funders should not put undue burden on the people they seek to serve, and coordinating listening within and across organizations helps ensure that people are not asked the same questions multiple times. It’s important to put in place strong internal systems to coordinate listening efforts and share what’s being heard across teams within an organization. It’s also important to coordinate listening across organizations. This coordination helps increase the chances that action will be taken in response to what people say. Sometimes a non-profit or a funder is not in a position to address feedback or input given by the people they seek to serve, but governments, humanitarian agencies, or another non-profit or funder might be in a position to respond.
4. Closing the Loop: Closing the loop means acting on what you hear from people and then, crucially, telling them what actions you took in response to what you heard. It is key to an empowering, non-extractive listening process – if the loop isn’t closed, the people providing you input and feedback may feel it’s not worth giving you input again. Non-profits and funders don’t have to respond to every piece of feedback as if it is a rigid directive, but they do need to listen with the intent to act on what they hear.
There are many excellent resources available for non-profits and funders that want to develop these competencies, including Fund for Shared Insight, Listen4Good, and the many free webinars, resources, brainstorming sessions and trainings that Feedback Labs offers.