Active Listening for Nonprofits: 21st Century Edition

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Today I am writing to urge you to read our feature article which discusses how nonprofits can manage our increasingly active and activist stakeholder dialogues. This is now the water in which we swim as organizations and we need to understand the many layers of considerations involved because our relevance – our very survival depends on it.

The other day I heard Ned Canty, the general manager of Opera Memphis tell the story of his organization’s near death experience. It escaped an almost certain end by realizing that it had unnecessarily and almost intentionally marginalized itself within a very large potential audience by adhering to an irrelevant and by then very risky status quo.

That self-imposed fencing off, of course, played havoc on both its artistic purpose and on its business model. To turn the situation around, the organization had to connect with its community in an entirely new and different way, sponsoring a traveling 30 days of opera that played beautifully and spontaneously on Memphians’ social media posts.

I can’t and won’t try to tell his story entirely and will leave that for another day, but it brings me to my point, which is to remind you that you are living today in a brand new environment with a different set of rules for survival. Some of those rules are bound up in expectations about connectedness and responsiveness. Not in terms of individual wants and needs necessarily, but people do expect to be shown that you are LISTENING to them and at least beginning to understand where your nonprofit’s purposes connect with or separate from theirs.

This means you must forget all your old notions about what “active listening” means. No longer do you wait to speak while gazing sincerely into someone’s eyes and making sympathetic noises; now, you must listen even when the noise is sub rosa, a rumble of energy coming at you or deserting you.

It’s a whole new frontier and our hope is that this article helps you navigate stakeholder discussions in this new environment, so that the energy that’s sometimes coming at you picks you up and carries you forward rather than colliding with you head-on or taking off and attaching itself to some other lucky nonprofit.

And, as always, I have to thank the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence in Memphis for one heckuva conference.