This is the first in a series of posts contributed by the Feedback Incentives Learning Group, a group of funders dedicated to encouraging peer funders to listen to the people most harmed by the systems and structures they seek to change and to supporting their grantees to listen as well. In this blog series, learning group members share their insight into and experiences with encouraging foundations and nonprofits to listen and respond to the people who are most impacted and often least consulted by philanthropy and nonprofits. We hope this series provides inspiration and guidance for those looking to listen better and, ultimately, encourages action.

For a long time, we funders have exerted our power to put ourselves at the center of our grantees’ world. We fund based on the strategies we set, thereby motivating our grantees to parse our every word for hints about what programs might be of interest to us. Every time we change our strategies, our grantees contort their programs to fit our new priorities rather than risk losing funding. When we become convinced that monitoring and evaluation, theories of change, or systems thinking are critical to success, our grantees scramble to add those practices to their already overflowing plates.

In exerting our influence as funders — sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously — we’ve created an entire system of incentives that reward our grantees for paying attention and responding to our needs, desires, and perspectives. This in turn makes it more difficult for our grantees to pay attention and respond to the needs, desires, and perspectives of the people who are at the heart of their work — the people who are most affected by the systems and structures our grantees are seeking to change.

It’s essential that our grantees be able to center the opinions and perspectives of the people that are most impacted by their decisions. Listening — and responding — to feedback from the people and communities at the heart of their work has helped nonprofits respond more effectively to changing client needsrepair relationships between staff and clients, and empower their clients to advocate for themselves. Done well, listening leads to better outcomes and helps shift power to the people and communities that are most harmed by the systems we’re seeking to change in a way that can contribute to greater equity. In times of crisis, listening is even more critical.

When grantees don’t have the space to listen and respond to the people at the heart of their work, their work is less effective and less equitable. Erica Kohl-Arenas, associate professor in American Studies at the University of California, Davis, has detailed the devastating effects that a focus on funder priorities and opinions has had on grassroots movements. Foundation funding to the California Farmworkers movement in the 1960s diverted the movement away from farmworker-led priorities and strategies. Funders leveraged their influence to shift the movement away from organizing and collective ownership toward the non-profit service model that funders preferred.

Read the full article about using our power to recenter voice by Clara Bennett, Joshua Elder, Katie Ensign, Lexi Mairone, and Veronica Olazabal at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.