Want to be the change you wish to see in the world? Deep listening is the key.

The voices of those enduring a challenging situation – whether those situations are economic, health, or climate-related to name a few – are often overlooked when policymakers or donors are devising potential solutions. Too often, they aren’t heard at all.

Of course, it’s important to review data and trends research, but if and when that kind of research is available, it doesn’t always present the whole picture. The good news is that taking care to understand the lived experiences of those who endure entrenched problems is happening more and more, and it’s offering philanthropists an opportunity to glean insights that would help achieve the impact they seek.

Last year, the Center for Strategic Philanthropy, in partnership with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance collaborated to develop a first-of-its-kind community survey to understand the perspectives of people living with depression and bipolar disorder, and to use these insights to guide research and drug development efforts. More than six thousand people responded.

It’s not often that the medical research community gets to hear from those who will ultimately and hopefully benefit from research, and it could be argued that it shows. Currently, diagnosis and treatment of depression and/or bipolar disorder can feel haphazard at best. As one respondent put it, “... trial and error of creating the right cocktail of drugs should not be commonplace.”

More than half of the respondents reported that they experience symptoms of both depression and bipolar -- and that symptoms began in childhood. This speaks to a massive unmet need, and an opportunity for philanthropists to step in and fund research to bolster the ability to diagnose specific conditions, and use precision health approaches to effectively treat individual patients.

Listening and learning from communities is at the heart of place-based philanthropic strategies as well, an approach that’s increasingly taking hold. A number of nonprofits and foundations stand out for their work to listen to communities as they seek to implement transformative change.

For example, the poverty-fighting nonprofit Robin Hood places community voice at the center of its Mobility Labs. The initiative engages with community members to co-design interventions, pilot them, and determine whether they can be broadly adopted. As Robin Hood CEO Wes Moore said at the Milken Institute Global Conference this year, “A phone company would not create a phone ... without having a user test group. We want to create and try to help and build solutions by working with communities -- to identify ... the biggest challenges and the breakdowns, so we can build up the structural elements that create better solutions.”

Robin Hood’s approach for involving the target population in social change work in a way that prioritizes their perspective and compensates them for their time is the new gold-standard for constituency listening. The trend is gaining momentum, and the growing popularity of human-centered design practices within the sector underscores that philanthropists are increasingly recognizing that those closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution.

These steps can help funders learn from those with lived experience:

  1. Solicit feedback on your feedback mechanism. Advisory groups comprised of your target audience will ensure you are creating the best possible feedback tool. Community members can fine tune the feedback platform and the language to ensure you’re asking the right questions and that the language is clear and understandable. It’s also important to ensure listening tools are widely available so that as many constituents as possible can be heard.
  2. Partner with an issue-area leader when entering a new space. Include community leaders and/or experts in the space when possible, and also be sure to include lived experiences. People experiencing entrenched challenges know what the problems are, and the solutions that will actually work. Truly focus on listening to the communities you wish to serve.
  3. Listen and follow. Constituents lament that communities often participate in focus groups only to feel that donors have disregarded their feedback and proceed along their original path. Listen frequently, learn continually, and take feedback seriously.

It’s encouraging that listening to communities to guide philanthropic programming is increasingly considered a “best practice” in strategic giving. Top-down approaches to philanthropic programming of all kinds, while not necessarily destined to fail, are potentially unlikely to have the impact they could have. It’s imperative that before research priorities are defined, or strategies are decided, feedback loops are built into all stages of philanthropic giving. Deep listening provides a fuller picture, and findings can (and ideally should) steer donors on to better funding and programming paths.


By Melissa Stevens, Executive Director, Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy.