Empathy in Philanthropy

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Daniel Silverman of the James Irvine Foundation.

By Daniel Silverman

image The GEO conference opening plenary featured a presentation by Dev Patnaik of Jump Associates about empathy. I’m always pleased when philanthropy conferences feature people whose primary experience is outside philanthropy. Our field has done a better job of learning from each other than learning from people outside philanthropy who have experience and insights that can get us to think about new solutions to old problems. Dev definitely has a solution to promote, and there were some things I liked about his talk, namely:

  • He was entertaining, he knows how to command a big room (over lunch, no less) and he definitely knows how to use Power Point (major brownie points from us communications geeks.)
  • He told good stories that were relevant to his point. I’ll remember the story about motorcycles getting all the prime parking spots at Harley-Davidson headquarters.
  • He has some compelling evidence that being empathic and really understanding your customer base is pretty important if you are a consumer-product company.

However, despite all that, I don’t think Dev figured out how to make his business insights all that relevant to the GEO crowd. I very much agree that foundations should (these were Dev’s concluding points):

  • Get outside: We do need to get to know our grantees and their communities and understand the context within which nonprofits are doing their work. That will make us better grantmakers.
  • Bring the outside in: We do need to invite grantees and their communities into our world, to be transparent about our decision-making processes, and to create the time and space to learn from them.
  • Make it a habit: We do need to get in the habit of connecting to our grantees and their communities on a regular basis.

These are all good points, but – here’s the rub – I don’t think they are particularly controversial or new, particularly to the GEO crowd. I’m not claiming that we are all following this advice well enough or that we don’t need to be attentive to maintaining and improving these behaviors. But I don’t sense a rabid disagreement within philanthropy about the inherent value in exhibiting empathy in the ways Dev described. (Please comment if you disagree!)

So, Dev’s points were good, as far as they went. I just don’t think they went far enough. We should be pushing ourselves to have deeper discussions about issues of foundation-grantee interactions. I think it’s less useful to talk about WHAT we need to do, and more useful to discuss HOW to exhibit the empathic behaviors that Dev outlined and, even tougher, how to exhibit those behaviors while maintaining other behaviors that have also proven to create more effective grantmaking. For example:

  • How can we follow our gut sense and intuition as grantmakers, yet also stay true to long-term strategies and learn from the rigorous research about how to maximize the impact of our grantmaking? I agree that intuition shouldn’t be ignored, but Dev implies that it should trump research, which seems like a false dichotomy. Can we trust our intuition and our research at the same time?
  • How can we deepen our relationship with grantees, be empathic, yet make the tough choices we often need to make about grantmaking priorities. Foundations have been criticized for being too cozy with certain grantees and too inaccessible to other organizations. How can we balance deeper relationships with current grantees, while maintaining the openness needed to make new connections and finding grantees that aren’t currently in our networks?

I don’t think there are right answers to these questions, but I think they are rich questions to discuss. In my mind, these are all tensions that make grantmaking messier, that take us into the grey areas. But these are not tensions to avoid or even to try to dissipate. Rather, I think they are the tensions that we must stay attentive to in order to balance competing interests and weigh pros and cons of different courses of action. It makes for a less compelling speech (and blog) perhaps, but I think it also makes for a discussion that is more likely to lead to insights that we can share and learn from each other. Do you experience these tensions in your grantmaking? How could you imagine applying Dev’s advice about empathic behaviors to your grantmaking?


  1. Amen, Daniel, to the “false dichotomy” point. Thank you for making it.

  2. Phil and Daniel, what do you think about the evidence that empathy and logic really do work against each other?

    Simply thinking logically, reduces the human empathetic urge. I don’t think this means that we should embrace both, of course we should, but I think it is a tricky issue that we can’t just blow off.

  3. Daniel Silverman says:

    I think the evidence supports my initial point. You also used the phrase “false dichotomy” in your post in December. Should we be empathic? Yes. Should we be rational? Yes. The evidence shows that rationality can get in the way of empathy, but I bet that empathy also gets in the way of rationality. We need to consciously listen to both sides of our brain to make the best grantmaking decisions.

  4. Stefan says:

    Thanks for the post and comments. I think you’re right that key is balance, and to recognize that and rational-only approach is flawed, so is empathy only. I think Deb’s point being mainly that we can sometimes sell short empathy – maybe because it isn’t something we can pay consultants to deliver for us?

    What really sticks with me from the talk was the challenge – “stop wasting time in meetings debating things that would be obvious if you spent any time in the real world”

    I’m not a program officer at my foundation, but a strategy guy – so an internal role. Very easy for me to get lost in the analysis and rationality side of the equation. Maybe not for many in the room, but Dev’s speech and “GET OUT!” exhortation was personally very provocative for me. I’m thinking about best ways to do it.