A few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to speak at and attend Upswell, a conference hosted by Independent Sector in Los Angeles. It was filled with an overwhelming, but exciting, selection of fantastic sessions, with a lot of inspiring ideas and learning.

Our Shared Humanity

The one theme of the conference that stood out most was humanity.

I love the topic of humanity as I truly enjoy moments of serendipity and seeing the ways in which we are all connected.

I also love thinking about our shared humanity as I feel that we cannot truly achieve change that we want to see in the world without it.

The ability to see ourselves in another person and to connect deeply with their challenges is what drives the solutions that will truly address complex issues such as poverty, homelessness, and hunger.

The lack of humanity, or inability to see all the ways in which we are all connected, is what holds us back from making the progress that we need to accomplish.

Deriving meaningful connection through humanity

The theme of humanity was reinforced by an amazing talk by David Brooks where he discussed how the plague of loneliness is only worsening and is contributing to, not only a rising suicide rate among young people, but also a growing disbelief in the core institutions of our country that previously provided strong tethers of support and connection.

Humanity was also on the lips of Tarana Burke as she discussed how the #MeToo movement has been bastardized by political agendas and manipulated to drive wedges rather than understanding.

In between the large talks and other sessions, I was struck by how the individual conversations and collisions that I had with people I had never met quickly shifted from “Hi, how are you? What do you do?” to impassioned sharing around equity, racism, and hypocrisy.

The conference provided a welcoming medium of connection that drove the impact of the sessions and conversations.

The Power of Empathy

As I returned home to my post-conference life, back to reality, kids, my inbox and calendar, I am renewed in my passion for the importance and relevance of humanity in the social impact sector.

Many times our work in our communities is fueled by a passion and appreciation for others and for change in the world, but it often is not fueled by our desire to deeply understand and sit in the pain with those we serve.

I am always continually and pleasantly surprised by the power of empathy; the transformative spark ignited by one-to-one, face-to-face conversations. Often times when we do our work, we sit in conference rooms or our offices and we talk about “the homeless”, “the opioid-addicted”, “LGBTQIA youth”, “Latina single mothers”; we talk about the size and scope of the problem, data and reports, best practices, and what should be done.

When was the last time you sat with those individuals to hear about the current state of their pain and needs?

Not in a case management or intake approach, but just to listen and hear their stories?

How often have you designed programs, drafted grant proposals, or made decisions that will impact not only the services you provide, but the lives of those you serve, without ever having included them in conversation or those decisions?

The Unintended Impact of DISCONNECTION

Our lack of connection has very important, long-lasting, and unintended impact. Our disconnection drives our policy- and decision-making. Our disconnection drives foolish solutions that do not dive into the systems and processes behind challenges.

We forget that people created the obstacles that stand in our way. What we see as excruciatingly bureaucratic structures of status quo were at one time created by people that were disconnected from those they served.

In our attempts to create change, we too can be guilty of creating programs, processes, and policies that do not address the true needs of communities and have unintended consequences for generations.

It is not enough to have a sympathetic response or to acknowledge and recognize how hard it must be for people to experience hunger, homelessness and poverty.

It is time that we meet with individuals one-on-one to really get to the core of their story, listen to their journey, and get into the history and the structures that placed them there in that moment.

Only then should we try to design and test solutions that could potentially solve their problems. If we can’t truly solve problems for one person or ten people, how can we solve for tens of thousands, or even tens of millions who face challenges every day?

We work with city employees, nonprofit professionals and philanthropic foundation leadership to break down the divide between “the work” and the people they serve. Many imagine that empathetic practice or deep connection is ubiquitous to our daily service as change agents, but unfortunately we see a sector that is ripe with disconnection.

At the conference there was a presentation that illustrated this disconnect.

This presentation revealed there is now a collective of foundations and others that are funding nonprofit organizations to connect with their clients to assess their satisfaction and service experiences.

As an example, some organizations are discovering that they have disparities in the experiences of their constituents; in some cases white clients being much more highly satisfied than clients of color.

We have so much work to do in the sector, but a first, critical step is to rethink the way we do our work. It is time for foundations to sit with nonprofits, for nonprofits to dive deeper into the needs of communities, and for cities to engage their residents in whole new ways.

This is why we practice Lean Innovation in our work.

The goal is to drive deep connection in order to create new value in the eyes of those we serve. True value comes from empathy. Without listening and without co-creation, the true value and deep connection will never form.

Rethinking the way we do work

Rethinking the way we do work in this way is also hard since once we make those connections, we can’t look back. We can’t put someone in a simple box when we see their complexities; we can’t address pain before we know where it hurts, and we can’t design for the future unless we know the past and current states.

I am inspired that our “at least” approaches of, “at least we are trying”, or “at least we have a program”, that blame communities for not participating, are being replaced by approaches that honor the assets and wisdom of communities and shift to questions like “Tell me a story of your experience”, “What have you tried that worked and what didn’t serve your needs?”, and “What do you want to see happen in your life, in the community?”

We have witnessed that when people are asked these different questions, they feel honored and seen, many for the first time. They feel heard and become committed to co-creating solutions with you. We observe over and over again how a learning conversation fueled by empathy can be an intervention in and of itself, and shift the life of not only the community member, but the social impact professional as well.

What we see most often in staff is that they are surprised with the insights they gain from the conversations and are so often flabbergasted by the simplicity of potential solutions that could address some of these challenges.

What is also interesting about empathy is that we all want the same thing, no matter our condition, whether we are providing or receiving services.

We want to feel heard and valued.

We want to feel like we matter and our viewpoint is valuable.

That spark we sense when we feel honored and when we have held space to honor another, is humanity restored.

What is tremendous is that the more we practice empathy with our families, our coworkers, our clients , the more stories we carry in our hearts and the more we can re-stitch the connectivity and humanity between all of us to drive deeper, authentic, long-lasting change.

For more information on our Social Impact program and how we apply Lean Innovation, click here or reach out. We are always happy to help, no matter how small (or large) the challenge.

Does this resonate with you?