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  • Pat Libby

Want to craft a good strategy for your nonprofit? Just listen

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

I’m in the midst of two very different strategic realignment projects for two very different types of nonprofits.

And that work has gotten me thinking: it’s impossible to develop a really good strategy without being a really good listener.​

Yet the art of listening well is hard and becoming harder all the time.

It’s hard because we’re distracted by the constant pinging of our devices which has eroded our ability to concentrate.

It’s hard because our President, and others like him, has fueled a fractious culture of picking sides and casting blame on those with whom we don’t agree.

And even if we abhor those tendencies, they can’t help but creep into how we view and interact with people who have “other” ideas.

Listening well requires us to hear what other people (and data) are telling us without prejudging what is being said or presented (or dismissing it as “fake” simply because we don’t like it).

In general, listening well involves:

Being present and focusing on what the other person is saying.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’m in a meeting where someone picks up their phone to check a text or to see who called them. You can’t be present when you’re distracted.

Put your phone away (and on silent) and look directly at whomever is doing the talking.

For years people used to ask what trick I used to remember the names of large groups of people (like a whole new class of students). My “trick;” stop and listen to what people said.

Asking clarifying questions.

If we’re being honest, sometimes people say things that are really odd or illogical.

Asking clarifying questions in a calm and respectful manner can help us understand what a speaker really means and can sometimes help that person think through his ideas in a more complete way.

True, we can’t always agree, but we can try to understand exactly what this person thinks and why he has that opinion.

Shutting up!

I grew up in a home where if there were 10 people sitting around a table, there were at least 8 conversations! Interrupting someone loudly was key to being heard.

You can’t hear what someone is saying unless you let them finish speaking.

Having empathy for the speaker.

This is particularly important for those of us who are affiliated with nonprofits. We may be on a board with a bunch of people who bring different perspectives to the conversation, and if we don’t stop to think through why they feel the way they do, we may never get to the root of the issue.

There is a lot of talk about the need for multi-cultural and multi-generational Boards, however, if nonprofit Boards want diverse representation, they have to learn to listen respectfully to diverse viewpoints and to try on new ideas.

Listening isn’t just about being polite, it’s about learning new things.

Letting data speak for itself.

Nonprofits are chock full of professionals who are supremely dedicated to what they do. While that’s mostly a wonderful thing, it can prevent us from hearing what the people we serve want and need!

The people we serve are the best sources of information about what we do well and can do better.

That means we need to listen carefully when our constituents give us informal feedback, and to the results of surveys and focus groups, interviews with key stakeholders, data and opinions from others in our field.

The magical thing is that all of those data points are likely to yield rich and similar information that your nonprofit can then use to improve its operations.

Creating strategy is about asking questions and finding answers.

And the single best way to do that is to listen carefully.


Pat Libby is a San Diego nonprofit consultant and philanthropy consultant. Her organizational strategy consulting services have been helping nonprofits and philanthropies carve their paths for over three decades. Find out more about Pat's services here, and contact her today for a free consultation.

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