By Dev Patnaik and Kathleen Enright
The changing economy has caused many people in the nonprofit world to re-examine the way they work, but too little effort has focused on one of the keys to success: empathy.
We know what you are thinking: Nonprofit groups are all about empathy. Soup kitchens, after-school programs, affordable-housing groups — the people who provide those services as well as the foundations that support them are always focused on helping others.
Unfortunately, that empathy seems to get short-circuited when we get together in large groups. We lose our intuition, our gut sense for what’s going on outside of that group.
But empathy — real empathy — is more than good intentions. Empathy is the ability to reach outside of yourself and walk in someone else’s shoes. Over time, empathy grows into an informed intuition for how other people see the world. We rely on this intuition to help us make better decisions that affect the folks around us.
Unfortunately, that empathy seems to get short-circuited when we get together in large groups. We lose our intuition, our gut sense for what’s going on outside of that group. Corporations become more insular. Colleges start to feel like ivory towers. Political campaigns take on a “bunker mentality.”
For nonprofit groups, that insularity can create institutions that are out of step with the people they seek to serve. When that happens, decision making breaks down. And our “help” ceases to be, well, helpful.
We have begun to notice how some of the most admired for-profit organizations seem to get beyond this problem. Nike, for instance, has labored for decades to create a company culture that’s obsessed with sports. Not surprisingly, the people who design new running shoes at Nike tend to be runners themselves. As a result, these employee-athletes are able to make decisions based on the kind of intuition that can’t be captured in any report.
Organizations like Nike believe they will succeed to the extent that they have an intuitive, gut-level understanding of what their customers think and feel. They know there is a danger associated with getting too caught up in the data; instead they find ways to understand the meaning behind the data. They have created organizations in which employees at all levels have a deep connection to the ordinary people who live beyond their office walls.
The lesson for nonprofit groups is that empathy is about more than having compassion for others, as important as that is. It’s also about operating in a way that ensures that an organization’s work is informed by the opinions and perspectives of the people who are affected by that work.
We are talking about the kind of empathy that gets individuals and organizations beyond caring in a vicarious, secondhand way about their neighbors to actually equipping them to make better, faster decisions about how they can help.
This means, for instance, that meetings intended to generate solutions for developing nations can’t productively be held at five-star resorts in the developed world. And they can’t be attended by people who have never spent time working with people in the countries they seek to aid.
One organization that understands this is the Raymond John Wean Foundation, in Warren, Ohio, which set out to transform how it interacts with the community it serves. Among the most visible signs of change: A board that formerly included family members only (and the family lawyer) now includes the former principal of an urban high school, the head of a local nonprofit group that serves low-income residents, and an employee of the area agency on aging.
“It looks more like the community,” said foundation president Gordon Wean of the new board, which is steering a transformation of the foundation’s grant making with an emphasis on strengthening nonprofit groups and neighborhoods in two counties in northeastern Ohio.
The Wean foundation is part of a growing movement in philanthropy — a movement founded on the belief that grant makers are more effective to the extent that they reach out to grantees and others who are affected by philanthropic decisions and actions.
A recent survey by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations said that foundations that have staff members with experience working at nonprofit organizations were significantly more likely than their counterparts to have “grantee-friendly” practices in place. For example, those foundations were more than twice as likely to report that they supported efforts to build the management capacity of charities as opposed to simply financing programs, and nearly three times as likely to say they supported leadership-development activities for grantees.
Numerous studies have shown that those types of support (for leadership and to enhance an organization’s management) can provide a crucial effectiveness boost to nonprofit groups.
It is not just foundations that can do a better, more effective job by embracing empathy. Charities can achieve so much more for the communities they serve when they involve those communities in their work in a more meaningful way. At a time when nonprofit organizations and the foundations that support them are being asked to do more with less, empathy may well hold the ticket to better results for the nonprofit world and the people it serves.
A previous version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.