Stronger foundations: Empathy makes you stronger

Published:13th February 2020

This was written by Anne Kazimirski, NPC’s Associate Director of Data and Learning in response  ACF’s report, Impact and Learning: The Pillars of Stronger Foundation Practice.

As a foundation, you have to work quite hard to keep your feet on the ground. You tend to be several steps away from the people affected by the issues you work on. It is difficult to be on top of the reality of these people’s every day lives, as well as the reality of the day to day service delivery that you fund, especially if you fund across a wide range of areas.

Keeping on top of this reality is informed empathy. It’s knowing what it’s like to be in that role or to experience that life, and the ability to understand what it’s like, as best you can. It is always easier to support a friend with an issue if you’ve experienced something similar yourself. Parenting advice is often about putting yourself in your child’s shoes to understand why they’re angry or upset. And it’s the same in the workplace: charities really value having carers on staff if they support carers, or disabled employees if they campaign on disability.

I am increasingly convinced of the importance of informed empathy in being a stronger foundation, and especially in getting impact and learning practice right. Most of the work of my team at NPC is to apply impact and learning principles in a wide range of contexts, and to help charities and funders adapt them to suit the realities facing grantees and beneficiaries. I am therefore delighted to see how often informed empathy is emphasised in various forms in ACF’s new report on impact and learning, with funding staff called on to gather evidence on the realities facing grantees and beneficiaries. Taking lived experience into account in a meaningful way is informed empathy. And so is understanding the impact that efforts to collect data may have on individuals or organisations. I would also emphasise the importance of working with your grantees and beneficiaries to understand what is relevant to collect data on. With informed empathy, you would never end up asking a domestic violence service to track rates of smoking among its service users as its key outcome, as a local government commissioner once did, rather than, say, emotional resilience or exposure to abuse.

Providing platforms and using your status and position to lift up others and amplify voices that are underrepresented, as called for in the report, is encouraging others to show informed empathy.  If you proactively take into account the needs and contexts of those you fund and work with, and learn from them, you are more likely to be able to show informed empathy.

You then need of course to think carefully about you achieve this greater knowledge, and gather this evidence. You need effective ways to listen to both grantees and beneficiaries, so that you make good use of both your time and their time. But nothing beats experiencing that role or that life yourself. We can’t all do like Polly Toynbee and live in Clapham Park Estate as she did in 2002 as part of the research for her book Hard Work, but consider charity secondments for yourself, or for your colleagues. Consider not only allowing staff time for volunteering as a trustee or charity volunteer, but actively promoting this in their roles. It might not be for everyone, but having a target proportion of your staff with that sort of exposure is I think a good way to go. Even after years of working with charities and social impact programmes as a social researcher and evaluation consultant, joining a small charity as volunteer counsellor and trustee has done wonders for both my understanding of a service user’s journey and what it’s like to run a tiny charity.

With informed empathy, we are stronger funders, service deliverers, researchers, evaluators. Let ACF’s report inspire you to drive forward your informed and empathetic impact and learning practice.

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