Deep Listening Starts Here

By Henry Berman, Exponent Philanthropy, and Jen Lachman, Lachman Consulting

Listening. It’s a skill we’ve been talking about a lot here at Exponent Philanthropy.


First, because we believe that listening is an essential skill for effective philanthropy. When—and only when—we listen deeply and humbly to those we serve, can we learn about their true needs and how we can partner most effectively to create meaningful change.

And second, because most people (grantmakers not excluded) are not as good at listening as we’d like to think. Listening deeply to another person takes real focus and attention, and our multitasking brains and fast-paced environments present endless distractions that make it hard for us to really tune in to what someone is saying.

At Exponent Philanthropy, we’re committed to closing this skill gap and helping our members become better listeners. At our CONNECT conference in October, we’re offering a Listening Workshop that will help attendees learn, practice, and apply deep listening skills.

Jen Lachman, co-facilitator of the CONNECT Listening Workshop, offers some suggestions for how you can deepen your listening.

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Foundation Executives: Make This a Year You Invest in Your Leadership

By Leslie Sholl Jaffe, independent consultant 

For many years, Exponent Philanthropy has offered programming and resources geared to the unique needs of foundation executive directors. This spring, it will be my privilege to again serve as co-faculty for Exponent Philanthropy’s 2017 Master Juggler Executive Institute, a unique 6-month peer learning opportunity for those in the most senior staff role at their foundations. Learn more about the Master Juggler Executive Institute >>

Leadership development is key to creating long-term sustainable systems within our organizations, and executive directors are at the heart of these systems.

Having spent the first 15 years of my career in the for-profit world working in large corporations, I was witness to the tremendous investment made by organizations in their most valuable assets: their people, who received training and development relevant to their leadership positions.

Nonprofit leaders and foundation executive directors are no less talented than their counterparts in the for-profit world, and the demands placed on them are no less than the demands placed on other chief executives. The greatest differential is the amount of investment made in their ongoing leadership development.

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You Talk With Your Mentor About What Exactly?

By Nathaniel James, Exponent Philanthropy

mentoringMentorship is an elusive idea. Magazines are full of advice on building and maintaining most kinds of relationships (employment, marriage, parenting), but there are few road maps for finding and nurturing mentorships. This despite the fact that most, if not all, leaders will include the support they received from mentors as part of their recipes for success.

Recently I was at a dinner party with at least 10 people roughly my age, and I was expressing gratitude for one of my mentors. The other guests looked at me a little awkwardly. When I asked if anyone else had an important mentor in their lives, not a single one said yes.

No wonder, then, that when matched with a mentor in a formal setting like our Next Gen Fellowship Program, young people can feel a little lost. As leader of the fellowship, the mentor matches I make are the most opaque part of the program—meaning I’m not always in-the-know about exactly how mentors and mentees are approaching the relationship.

This past month, I set out to discover what makes this component productive and effective. I talked to 22 participants, both mentors and mentees.

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Take a Fresh Look at Feedback

feedback-1825515_640By Ruth Masterson, Exponent Philanthropy 

As you engage in your philanthropy—working with grantees, applicants, board members, and, in many foundations, staff—you’re giving and receiving feedback all the time about things that concern you and things you love, whether you mean to or not. Feedback comes through via unconscious facial expressions, comments during meetings, or your enthusiasm for the work.

As a longtime student of giving and receiving feedback, I’m far from perfect at it. But I have found that bringing intentionality to my communication has been helpful. I encourage you to do the same.

Giving Feedback

Our staff at Exponent Philanthropy were trained by The Management Center in the SAW model of giving feedback:

  • S: Share your experience (what you loved or what concerned you) and how it affected you; mention why you think it matters.
  • A: Ask if you got it right and acknowledge that you may have made assumptions. Although your experience is always valid, your assumptions, understanding, and perception can be wrong.
  • W: Wrap up with next steps and state what you expect or will do next. It’s fair game to make a request of the other person, but it’s best not to go into the conversation with an expectation of what the outcome will be. Allow the other person to participate in finding a solution.

I’ve found it helpful to prepare in advance what I want to say using the SAW steps, keeping the following characteristics in mind. Download a worksheet to help you prepare >>

Some Characteristics of Good Feedback

  • Be specific. Talk about a single behavior or pattern of behaviors, not a person’s general character. Feedback should never be a smokescreen for making sweeping judgments. I think it’s best if you talk about one example or one pattern per conversation. Even if you have multiple topics to cover, it can be hard for the listener to take it all in. Give the recipient time and space to incorporate one thing at a time, especially if your goal is to improve a situation.

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Reflective Practice to Move Your Philanthropy Forward

By Jan Jaffe, The Giving Practice

Participants in Jan and Janis's session on reflective practice

Participants in Jan and Janis’s session on reflective practice

I had a hunch: If everyone in a room reflects on their practice, especially the practices they turn to when stymied somewhere between intent and outcome, something good and potentially powerful would result.

By practice, I mean the tools and skills one uses to have difficult conversations, move ideas along, work across the boundaries of different systems, and bring one’s best assets and manage one’s worse behaviors in service of a task.

We all have good and bad ways of reflecting on ourselves, but largely they are invisible to others—sometimes even to ourselves. If my hunch was right, perhaps we could create a space for sharing practices to up everyone’s game.

While I have been intent on discovering philanthropy’s reflective practices with a team of colleagues at The Giving Practice, Exponent Philanthropy had been operating in a yearlong peer learning program for leaders of foundations, the Master Juggler Executive Institute.

When Hanh Le, then Chief Program Officer at Exponent Philanthropy, heard that The Giving Practice was exploring the role of reflective practice as a discipline within philanthropy, she called to see what we might do together.

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Peer Coaching: The Gift of Deep Listening

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

“With capable coaches at their side, nonprofit leaders can learn more about themselves, about their organizations, and about how to manage people and conflicts, how to delegate responsibility for day-to-day tasks, and more. No other intervention can teach these things better than effective coaching, and we hope that grantmakers, both individually and as a field, will work hard to advance the application and practice of coaching in the years ahead.” —Coaching and Philanthropy: An Action Guide for Grantmakers

Peer coaching is the practice of listening and asking good questions to help an individual uncover, discover, or develop something important to their learning or growth. Unlike professional coaching, peer coaching is done by colleagues in the same organization or field who take turns coaching each other, usually in pairs or groups of three or four.

“Peer coaching is giving someone the gift of your presence,” says Robin Gallant, executive director of Gallant Family Foundation, “which allows someone to give presence to themselves. Once they achieve quiet within themselves, a whole world of solutions can emerge.”

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Help Your Board Members (or Anyone) Be Open to New Ideas

By Ruth Masterson, Exponent Philanthropy 

Is your foundation board stuck or complacent? Have you been wanting board members to consider a new strategy or project, only to find they just aren’t willing to listen? Perhaps you need a new approach—a fresh one—to create the space where board members feel willing to consider change.

I found a helpful idea in a book I’m reading, Intentional Leadership by Jane A.G. Kise. Within it, a chart outlines the elements of Carl Jung’s theory of personality types and makes suggestions for what individuals of different types might need to be open to change. 

The personality types have been popularized by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®, a questionnaire that aims to determine where individuals fall on Jung’s spectrums. This structure is something many of us are familiar with; briefly stated, the four spectrums are these:

  • I/E: Introverted (energized by down time) or Extroverted (energized by being around others)
  • S/N: Sensing (relying on sense perceptions) or Intuitive (relying on intuitions)
  • T/F: Thinking (preferring to approach situations with logic) or Feeling (preferring emotional understanding)
  • J/P: Judging (making quick decisions) or Perceiving (preferring to gather more information)

So, back to where we started: You want to be a catalyst for change on your foundation board.

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5 Ways Relationships Matter: Tips From Foundation Executive Directors

By Janice Simsohn Shaw, Exponent Philanthropy

For a number of years, it has been our privilege to offer programming and resources geared to the unique needs of foundation executive directors.

Most come to this work from outside philanthropy, through a mix of skill and serendipity, and work up, down, and across their organizations, often as sole-staffers or in very small offices. Managing everything from the mundane to the sublime, they truly live up to the moniker we’ve given them: Master Jugglers.

Last week, we brought together three foundation EDs for a well-attended conference call on ways to find, hire, and support those who serve in this role. The three EDs span geographic areas, ages, and paths to philanthropy, and together we discussed lessons learned, board–ED dynamics, juggling and prioritizing, and much more.

One subject emerged repeatedly: the role of strong relationships.

Here’s what we heard about how relationships play into the professional success and personal well-being of foundation EDs.

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Strengthen Your People Powers

By Janice Simsohn Shaw, Exponent Philanthropy

Philanthropy, from the Greek word for “to love humanity,” is inherently a human enterprise.

In this business of helping to solve complicated social problems, we’re bound by the opportunities and challenges of working with other people to do so. It can be emotional work, and it’s work that involves very diverse people who span different generations, politics, cultures, genders, educational and professional backgrounds, and the list goes on.

Whether you’re managing asset growth, tackling generational succession, refining your mission, or simply doing the work at hand to serve your philanthropic goals, being attentive to the human elements can strengthen your philanthropy and make it more pleasurable.

At Exponent Philanthropy, we look at a number of skills and approaches that can help you develop the “people powers” necessary to work sensitively and effectively with those around you. Some call these topics soft skills, but we think that name downplays their importance in guiding your philanthropy through moments of change as well as its status quo. We call them effectiveness skills instead, and explore topics such as:

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Ways to Build a Culturally Competent Board

By Howie Schaffer, Bonanza Communications

Can greater cultural competency help funders better align their resources with needs? Despite notable accomplishments and donors who care a great deal about serving historically underserved populations, philanthropy continues to struggle to achieve social change for the communities and populations that need it most. 

Even the most thoughtful and productive philanthropists—including those who aim to serve, and do serve, highly diverse constituencies—may innocently overlook one component when assembling their boards or advisors: cultural competency, the ability to interact effectively with people from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Donors may inadvertently apply their own cultural lens in defining the needs of communities and populations, and in researching and offering solutions to these needs,” according to D5, a 5-year coalition to increase philanthropy’s diversity, equity, and inclusiveness, “or they may assume that there are no real differences across communities.”

Set the Stage

Board members are typically chosen for their commitment to the foundation’s mission, level of involvement in the community, field knowledge, proficiency in financial management, legal expertise, or other specialized skills.

“When foundations achieve more diverse and inclusive boards,” says D5 Director Kelly Brown, “that factor can go a very long way toward engendering greater cultural competency throughout the organization, no matter the size.”

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