Nonprofit work is an endurance sport; empathy is our muscle

berlin-661468_960_720I’m about to say something that no self-respecting operations professional should probably ever say. There’s something we and our teams should be spending time on, and whether or not we succeed is completely unmeasurable. It’s about  looking at things from another person’s point of view. This will be nearly impossible to write into annual goals. It won’t fit easily into job descriptions. But we should make it a thing anyway. The best colleagues I’ve worked with have an uncanny ability to anticipate the unexpressed needs of those around them. Unless you have stumbled across the portal on floor 7 ½ from Being John Malkovich that allows you to instantly experience life through another’s eyes, it’s something most of us have to work at.

The road ahead is long. To sustain ourselves, we must understand and we must be understood.

Our organizations have a daunting task ahead. If even glancing at the news these days causes you to flinch involuntarily, you have to accept that the road ahead will be long. The only way we can overcome the obstacles we face is with an overabundance of empathy for each other. Each of us, in our own way, has a need to be understood.  Still, most of us humans are pretty terrible at expressing what we’re really thinking most of the time.

Our sector tends to attract caring people. And then we promptly load them up with so much responsibility and stress that only masterful jugglers can sustain it. Nevertheless, we continue to seek understanding. This is what gives us purpose.

The road is long. We must allow empathy to be our guide.

On the first day of my first real job, as a case manager working with seniors in central Florida, I found myself in the living room of an elderly couple. Their mobile home wasn’t that different, really, than the one my grandparents had retired to in Daytona, a few miles away. Under the watchful eye of a seasoned case manager, I ran through the questions on the annual assessment. First section – nutrition. “Do you have sufficient food in your home?” I asked, awkwardly reading off the page. The man I was interviewing stiffened, regarded me with a challenging eye, and said “No matter how hard it got in our lives, I’ve always made sure my family has a full refrigerator.” I paused, suddenly feeling very aware of the limitations of my own life experience. I had grown up in such privilege that I never had to even question whether there would be food in the fridge. There always just – was.

For many of us in the nonprofit sector, especially those in front line jobs, there are ample opportunities to spend time with those we serve. For some of us, we arrive on the job with empathy because we come from the community we’re there to serve. For others, it is a muscle we need to build. As Dev Patnaik says in Wired to Care, it’s essential we gain “gut-level” empathy for the people we are here to serve. This is how we figure out how to respond appropriately to the needs of those around us, and eventually we can do it without even having to think about it. After my first experience with the man in Florida, I never simply read the questions on the assessment forms verbatim. An assessment form sends a clear signal that this is a transaction, and it didn’t help matters when I methodically ticked through each question. So I changed the way I handled these visits. I listened to the stories my clients told about their lives, asked about family members who appeared in framed pictures on their walls, and only then worked in the questions I was there to find answers to.

I tried my best to sustain the empathy over time, but…But, I had a hundred clients. But, I was buried in paperwork. But, some days I just didn’t feel like listening. After awhile I found it hard to absorb the pain and difficulty my clients were feeling. This is part of why I have so much respect for the people in front line jobs.  Eventually, I found it too much to balance and burned out. And I moved from front line to backstage work. The problem wasn’t that I wasn’t motivated or stopped caring, it was that I was overburdened by the requirements of the job.

The road is long. We must remember that some of us will have to work harder than others to gain empathy.

For some of us in the sector, while we may be utterly devoted to our organization’s purpose, we have to work a lot harder to get this kind of gut-level empathy. Creating room for empathy is not just a touchy-feely, we are all humankind, commune with the universe type of thing. For those of us in finance, operations, technology, fundraising and numerous other behind the scenes roles, understanding the day-to-day reality of life for those our organizations serve directly affects the decisions we make. While it may not always feel like we, or members of our team, have time to spare, we have to find a way. It’s actually not possible to be able to do our jobs well until we have that gut-level connection.

For the person who answers the phone or sits at the front desk, understanding what may be going on in the life of a client makes it more likely they will be able to quickly get them what they need. For fundraisers, seeing the challenges the program staff are trying to solve up close not only makes them better at making the case to donors, it helps them figure out what opportunities to look for. And if your fundraiser is also in the role of developing programs, they’ll have a much clearer idea of what kinds of solutions make sense. The techies on your staff benefit from seeing the day to day reality of your clients as they build solutions that work, including web sites that are accessible them. Trustees, too, will govern better when they are driven by a more grounded understanding of what your clients face.

Those of us in backstage roles need to look for as many opportunities as possible for our staff to simply spend time with those we serve. This might include sending backstage staff out with front line staff on site visits, sending them to community meetings or setting up time for them to interview clients when we are considering a new program or service.

The road is long. We must practice empathy, not only for those we serve, but for each other.

When the going gets tough, it is incredibly helpful when you know what makes the person sitting across from you excited to come to work every day and what makes it hard for them to do their job. Do you know what your colleague thinks was the highlight of their year last year? The thing they were proudest of? Their biggest frustration?

Perhaps one of the most underrated activities is taking a colleague out for tea (or coffee, if you’re partial to it). Some organizations have even set up a small fund for staff to use to take a peer in another department out for a hot beverage.

Cross training is another great way to build this muscle. It not only allows the work to continue when someone is out for the day (or the week, or longer), it can make you a better partner. Having firsthand experience with how difficult it is for you colleagues to do their jobs makes us more likely to approach them with humility and understanding whenever it’s time to solve a problem.

The road is long. Between funders and nonprofits, well, money makes it weird sometimes, but we’ve got to get past it.

Funders and nonprofits are in this work together, but we don’t always exercise empathy for each other. Funders have to work doubly hard to gain gut level empathy for nonprofits and the communities they serve. Vu Le in his post on Undoing Power Dynamics  argues that funders should make time to just sit down over a beer with nonprofits they fund and talk frankly about the challenges they face, without a pitch on the table. My organization, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, recently put out a publication on how foundations can shape their own internal culture. The Fund for Shared Insight is funding some interesting work to improve openness between funders, nonprofits and the communities they serve. Funders need to take a look at their culture and how, if they’re not careful, it could become the equivalent of empathy-cancelling headphones.

A word on funders. I’ve been supporting internal operations at GEO for thirteen years. We exist to support funders. Yes, believe it or not, funders are as deserving of empathy as anyone else in our sector. In my years as a fundraiser prior to coming to GEO, I was guilty of viewing funders as all-powerful demigods. Frankly, I was so focused on the pressures I was up against, I didn’t stop to wonder about the pressures they were facing in their own organizations. As they’re trying to break free from traditional ways of grantmaking, many of our members are working against years, sometimes decades, of history. As fundraisers, we need to admit that we bring our own stuff to the table too. I’m not saying you need to reveal your deepest darkest secrets, but it’s worth thinking about what might be different if we thought of the person on the other table as someone who, just like us, is dealing with their own constraints and limitations to try make things better in our field.

The road is long. Empathy is the muscle that will get us there.

Endurance athletes relentlessly build up their muscles so that when it comes time to race, they are in peak condition. In nonprofits, empathy is our muscle. When everyone in the organization works hard to tone that muscle, the organization is stronger for it. As nonprofit leaders, it’s imperative that we:

  • Free up the time. Our staffs can’t hope to build gut-level empathy and make good decisions for your clients if they are drowning in paperwork and other responsibilities. We need to make it an expectation, and we need to make sure staff have the time. As I wrote in an earlier piece, if we want staff to develop, we need to make sure they can do it on work time.
  • Give everyone a chance to see the work from another point of view. At GEO, we send every staff person, regardless of role, into the field to spend a couple of days with a member after they’ve been on the team for about a year. We’ve also got a dedicated Slack channel (more on Slack in an upcoming post) featuring member stories. It won’t happen on its own. We need to set the table for it.
  • Make it a thing. As with anything, what gets rewarded and recognized gets done. Talk about it in staff meetings. And even putting a little bit of money behind activities that build gut-level empathy makes a big difference.

Thanks, all. More Ops Boosts coming soon. If you have any favorite Ops Boosts, please share them with me. And tell me why you like them so much. I really want to know.

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