Early in my career I was working in Kampala, Uganda on a development project. One day I walked past a little girl, about age 3 or 4, sitting cross-legged on the street in tattered clothes under the hot sun, with her hand out for money, eyes closed, not moving an inch. A similar-looking slightly older girl ran up to her and started rubbing her hand, trying to get her to wake up or move. Seeing children asking for money was a common sight in Kampala, and I wasn’t sure how I could help. Also, I was nervous and uncomfortable—wanting to help but unsure how I would be received. So I just kept walking, on my way to a meeting to sit in an office with other professionals to discuss how to best tackle poverty and injustice in Uganda. I’ve wished a thousand times since then that I could go back to that moment and talk to them, understand their situation, and try to help.
Sometimes “our ability to make a difference requires proximity to the problem,” said Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the best-selling book, Just Mercy, at the opening plenary of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conference in Boston last week. When we get close to the marginalized, vulnerable, undocumented, and incarcerated, we can understand, listen, and help in ways that we just can’t sitting in our offices.
One benefit of being proximate is listening – and hearing. Grant Oliphant, President of the Heinz Endowments, said at the conference that philanthropy likes to say it is about giving a voice to the voiceless, but they [the marginalized] don’t need a voice—they are talking plenty. What we need to do now is give ears to the earless. According to CEP research shared at the conference, the top practice foundation CEOs see as holding promise for increasing impact is learning from those they seek to help.We want to learn from beneficiaries, and one way we do that is to provide funding for surveys and focus groups of beneficiaries to produce thick reports to tell us what beneficiaries think. We use the research to inform strategies on how to make a difference in the world. Funding the research is hugely important, and I believe an incredibly needed role for philanthropy to play. It allows us to get the perspective of not just one person but lots of voices on a particular issue and share that with the rest of the field. But Bryan Stevenson’s challenge to us at the conference is that we need to do more. We need to be proximate.
Being proximate goes beyond just listening – we need to allow what we hear change us, not just think about how we can change them. Maybe you set out to fund in one area but what those most affected tell you is they need something completely different. Are we really willing to listen and hear and change our views? I believe that to truly do that, we need to remove the barriers between funders, grantees, and beneficiaries and physically get in the same place together.
At the end of the day, sitting in meetings in offices is easy. Sitting in front of computers answering emails is easy. Getting proximate and putting ourselves physically next to the most vulnerable and marginalized and really listening? That is hard. And let’s be honest, it can be downright uncomfortable. But as Bryan Stevenson emphasized in the final point of his talk, if we want to make the difference we want to see, we need to get uncomfortable.