I attended a really interesting event last night hosted by Arlington Economic Development entitled "Empathy in Business." The panel discussion, moderated by Jonathan Aberman of Amplifier Ventures, featured Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, the Meyer Foundation's CEO, Julie Rogers, and the President of George Mason University, Angel Cabrera.
I was intrigued by this panel for two reasons:
- I'm a firm believer in the power of business to help address social issues and inequities
- There seems to be a common disconnect between business and "touchy feely" terms like empathy, with business terms generally falling in the more intellectual realm, and nonprofit terms generally falling in the more emotional realm. I was curious to see how "business" and "empathy" would interact.
Also, the notion of Carly Fiorina and Bill Drayton on the same panel was just intriguing.
The panel definitely didn't disappoint. It was provocative, but not controversial; all of the panelists agreed that empathy is an essential part of business (and nonprofits, and parenting, and life in general).
A few of my favorite quotes:
- "Any good business is one that focuses on its enlightened self-interest" - Carly Fiorina
- "Empathy is the tool that makes business happen. It starts with listening." - Angel Cabrera
- "Empathy is a cornerstone of what it means to be human." - Julie Rogers
- "Ask not what your Executive Director can do for you. Ask what you can do for your executive director." - Julie Rogers. She was actually wearing a pin with that quote
- "Empathy based ethics are foundational to our society, including business." - Bill Drayton
My main takeaway from the event is that empathy is a key value in business, even (and maybe particularly) in businesses that do not have an explicit social mission. If we accept Dr. Cabrera's notion that empathy starts with listening (which all of the panelists seemed to do), then creating a sustainable business -- one that will last and produce value for a long time -- requires starting with empathy. That means listening to investors, to customers, to employees, to communities -- and using their perspectives to guide business decisions. It also means not valuing the perspective of investors over all others.
So what does this all mean for nonprofits and for grant writing? That nonprofits should be - and are - motivated by empathy is obvious, and probably missing the bigger point. What does it mean for nonprofits to be more empathetic?
To me, the key word is listening. To be more empathetic, nonprofits have to listen - to donors, to constituents, to employees, to communities. What that means for grant writing is two key things:
- Listen to your funders and prospective funders. Foundations have missions, too. They make funding decisions based on those missions. Trying to fit square pegs into round holes in terms of mission fit and funding priorities isn't really listening to the foundation. Listen to the foundation. If your organization is a good fit with its priorities, then apply (and see the next point). If it isn't, then move on.
- Listen to your constituents. What do your service recipients need? What are they getting from you? What are they not getting from you? Use their voices and perspectives to keep guiding the development and fine tuning of your programs and services. And communicate those perspectives to your funders and potential funders when you write grant proposals. Ultimately, everyone is trying to accomplish the same thing -- to help improve outcomes for the population or area that your organization serves. By listening to your constituents, you can better convey to your funders how support your organization will help them better meet their own missions.
- Listen to your employees. Dan Palotta's TED talk is getting lots of attention (for good reason!) at the moment. While he advocates better pay for nonprofit employees (and I agree), what I'm advocating here is listening to your employees' non-remuneration-related needs, as well as to things they express as challenges and opportunities to better serve your constituents.
What do you think? What is the role of empathy in nonprofits in general, and in grant writing in particular?