Expanding Radical Listening in the Philanthropic Sector

Rachel Gerber & Alon Shachar

What does it mean to practice radical listening? Moreover, what does it mean to practice radical listening with donors? When Kathy LeMay, a longtime fundraiser, advises fundraisers on what practices and activities they should invest most of their time on, she says “60 percent of your time should be spent in relationship with donors and investors,” either actually communicating with them face-to-face or by creating content to communicate with them, like background research on topics or organisations they are interested in. The core of her approach is to spend a significant amount of time “with the very people who equip your mission and make it possible." Radical listening is the act of intentionally stewarding the relationship with donors by helping them to fulfill their personal mission through the organization’s work and cultivating a communicative and trusting relationship with them.


Relationships are useful and beneficial for all players in the philanthropic world. An organization should have a relationship with its donors, board members should have a committed relationship with the organization’s staff, and the staff members with their beneficiaries. The practice of radical listening can, and should, be applied across the board in the philanthropic sector, enabling donors and organizations to fulfill their missions and meet the needs of their beneficiaries. When beneficiaries are truly heard by staff, and staff are able to adapt their programs, accordingly, because they too are truly heard by their management, and, likewise, the donors are able to fully understand the needs on the ground and how these activities fulfill their own missions, lives can truly be positively changed.

Taking the perspective of LeMay, where nonprofits and organizations should be radical listeners to help donors understand and achieve their missions, one step further, we are suggesting that donors should also be radical listeners. Donors should listen to beneficiaries and professionals so they can be truly educated on the needs in the field, learn to donate responsibly, and most importantly, donate with the needs of the target population in mind rather than simply creating a pet project. If all donors, large and smaller, practiced radical listening it would avoid organizational “mission creep.” This “mission creep” causes organizations to reinvent the wheel, and sometimes their mission, each year, to meet donor’s interests, rather than focusing on the needs of the organization’s target market.


Relationships are key between donors and organizations; however, both sides need to practice radical listening in order to cultivate a fruitful relationship that will create impact. Understanding the need, the proposed solution by the organization, and understand best practices in the field will create the most lastly impact for the recipients of the organization’s services.


One of the most critical questions donors and organizations address year-round is the meaning of impact. How do players in the philanthropic world know they are making an impact, as well as quantitate the amount of impact?  Usually this is done by number of people served, or how many jobs created, or a plethora of other measures. But one thing that is rarely measured, with regards to impact, is operational cost. Organizations must be able to functionally operate internally in order to produce programs, initiatives, and change externally. One thing we recommend donors radically listen to is the need to support organization’s internal operations so they can externally impact successfully. What’s sexy is not always what is needed; organizations just need support paying the rent or keeping the lights on. Organizations need sustainable, loyal, long-term donors, at all giving levels, whom they can count on. Especially those who won’t lose interest when the next shiny cause pops up; one that can be a partner in creating a lasting change.