The importance of listening: How to enable productive communication between funders and communities

There is a growing need to analyse the status-quo of practices followed by funders in India with regards to ‘listening’ and building feedback loops with the NGOs and communities

Neera Nundy
Updated: Jun 9, 2022 03:30:58 PM UTC
While most funders would like to inform their funding strategy based on community needs, listening with an intent to inform strategy is yet to become a necessary regular practice. Image: Shutterstock

Listening to the needs of the communities we seek to serve is one of the most important foundations to rebuilding a resilient India. While we cannot deny the emotional connection that sustains one’s giving over time, for the Indian philanthropic community to usher in a movement of positive social change and build back better, funders need to make philanthropic decisions based on an objective analysis and deep understanding of the needs and realities on the ground.

However, chronic problems pertaining to data in philanthropy plague the sector. These include lack of a single data hub that consolidates accurate, updated, and comprehensive data around the philanthropy landscape. Other issues such as fractured data infrastructure and a dearth of reliable and accurate base data on key development indicators further add to the problems. In case data is available, it is largely unstructured, unformatted, and undigitised, often unaccompanied with any effective representation, visualisation, or insights for actionable intelligence. This reduces the ability to access and use the data to make evidence-based decisions when supporting, planning, implementing, and monitoring development programs.

1) State of listening practice among funders

In a survey conducted by Dasra as part of the India Philanthropy Report 2018, 40 percent of donors confirmed  that areas of personal interest or experience played a pivotal role in the selection of a focus area for one’s philanthropy, while only 20 percent narrowed the focus area of their giving based on the analysis of areas of greatest need or highest potential impact. A survey conducted by Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2019, reported that gathering feedback was one of the priorities in measuring impact for 88 percent of respondents, but only 13 percent actually used it as the top source of insight for decision-making.

Traditionally, funders have not been as willing to pay for approaches that encourage quality listening to communities to shape their philanthropic decisions. However, a gradual shift is emerging with a few family philanthropists setting an example by prioritising deep listening to the communities and investing in institutional building or operational processes. They are paving the way for many more funders to invest in building a listening ecosystem in order to move the needle in the development sector.

2) Enabling high-quality listening in the philanthropic space

For listening to be adopted as a regular practice in the philanthropic ecosystem, funders need to prioritise the voices of vulnerable communities and NGO partners that work closely with them through a GEDI lens (gender, equity, diversity, and inclusion). Some best practices to consider are:

3) Fostering listening as a core value

It is important for funders to design their programs based on community needs. They must prioritise listening to the communities through partner NGOs that work closely with them in order to be well aware of the challenges on the ground. They can increasingly partner with NGOs that have built trust and good relations with the community and have strong feedback channels. It is also critical that staff members have an open mind while communicating with NGO partners and the community. Mariwala Health Initiative ensures deep listening in their system by working with partner NGOs that are founded or led by individuals from the communities themselves. This ensures that their programs are centred on the communities and delivered by individuals from the community who are trained and who also understand the issues at hand more deeply.

4) Building a deep understanding of on-ground issues
It is vital to understand the community through its various facets, ensuring the representation of various stakeholders, understanding sensitivity associated with feedback, and maintaining confidentiality to ensure that program designs are realistic, implementable, intersectional and can tackle disruptions, for instance during Covid-19.

5) Balancing the power dynamics with communities and partner NGOs

Funders need to treat communities and NGOs as equal stakeholders in the equation and build a rapport with them such that communicating inefficiencies in the programs becomes comfortable. Funders need to understand the programs from the lens of the NGO partners, trust their approach and be more flexible in reporting formats, usage of language, and mode of communication with NGOs and communities.

6) Ensure consistency of communication

Building a trust-based relationship and a safe space for communities and NGOs is critical to make them feel heard. This can be done through intense regular visits and interactions to encourage free and open conversations about the programs, as done by the Azim Premji Foundation. Effective communication would also mean closing the feedback loop by following up on changes made as a result of the feedback and sharing the same with the NGO or community. One of the ways ATE Chandra Foundation seeks feedback from the NGO or the community is by conducting third-party evaluations and empowering staff to make necessary course corrections as a result of the feedback they received.

Building a strategic plan for one's philanthropy, evaluating the portfolio, and creating simple measurement mechanisms to solve for a given cause are examples of areas that can be approached in a structured and analytical manner.

7) Enabling a ‘robust’ listening environment 

The transformative effect of beneficiary feedback on the social sector cannot be ignored—not only in elevating the voices of communities but also in enabling better decision-making on the part of NGOs and funders. There is a growing need to analyse the status-quo of practices followed by funders in India with regards to ‘listening’ and building feedback loops with the NGOs and communities. While we are witnessing some families being more intentional about putting their ears to the ground, we need to continue the upward momentum.

While most funders would like to inform their funding strategy based on community needs, listening with an intent to inform strategy is yet to become a necessary regular practice. Therefore, funding strategies need to prioritise investment in the listening process. There is a need to create a narrative to channel investments to encompass authentic listening practices in the Indian development sector to maximise impact and build Communities of Practice (CoP) for NGOs and funders to enable peer sharing for better listening.

This requires continued investment in building funder awareness on the importance of listening to communities and the NGOs serving them. This would include amplifying real-life cases where listening has improved program effectiveness and sharing best practices that could help their grantees build better listening practices, including but not limited to flexible budgeting and the creation of safe spaces for feedback. While working with individual stakeholders is critical, it needs to be supported by efforts that strengthen the entire ecosystem by enabling knowledge, attitude change, and informed discussions amongst key stakeholders on the subject of integrating listening practices across the development sector.

The writer is managing partner at Dasra.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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