A Sunday Supper


MDC and a few friends gathered last Sunday evening to talk about listening as part of our social impact practice. Kelley Gulley from Irvine Foundation imparted her takeaways from the Irvine Foundation’s listening tour to hear about what life is like for the hundreds of thousands of working Californians living in or near poverty.

It was a small gathering of friends and colleagues; Lauren, a creative director at Apple; Charmaine, a real estate developer, a few of us from REDF, a social enterprise investor; Sande, a foundation communications director – even a partner or two. And it made us “proximate” or smack-dab next to others we didn’t know. I was the only one who knew more than one person in the group. Each of us a little bit uncomfortable. This turned out to be best positioning to think about how we can employ empathy and understanding of others we don’t know in our change-making.

It’s this idea of the smallness that I would like to surface. Many of us attend conferences and networking events; it’s usually the individual and personal encounters we take the most from. Rarely, in our professional and social lives, we step outside our usual circles to meet and learn about strangers in such an intimate manner.  Yes, we have lunch with folks we know; invite our friends to dinner; even have lunches with potential collaborators. But few times do we come into such close contact with others we don’t know, in such small social setting.

Second, our group brought together a mix of fields, for-profits, nonprofits, and foundations. In fact, a few of us had never spent an evening like this with others from another field. Unfortunately, it isn’t often that nonprofit and foundation folks have dinner at someone’s house together; nor do we social impact communicators usually have a chance to be so proximate to corporate folks in a work-related discourse.



Finally, in a similar way, Kelley’s articulation on the listening tour challenged us to consider California `realities beyond our own, what it takes to reach out beyond our own comfort zones and insider perches. We noted the major commitment Irvine Foundation embraced – using ample resources, staff time, and attention – to get closer and understand Californians, as it adjusts its agenda to their stated needs.

As a consultant, all too often, as we offer our Human Centered Design workshop, I hear, “I’d love to take the workshop, I just don’t have the time.” Or “ this is a little too zany for our board to consider.”

I would posit that some of our practices, although still useful, are actually way behind current practice of most companies.

Design of products and marketing approaches are focused on reaching customers as deeply as possible. Much of our research practice still lives in sterile conference rooms with one-liner tests and reaction dials. Silicon Valley creatives are going into communities, observing and speaking to people where they live and work, using their own humanity to understand others’ needs. It seems way past due for us in the social impact world to do the same – and some of us are, but most of us are still not.

So what does this all mean? Now that many of us have worked through the data phase, as we move into focusing on racial equity, let’s look more deeply at our practice and how to incorporate human centered approaches. And in small groups, let’s talk about it – putting our own selves in front of some new folks. This is the direction where I’m traveling. I invite you to join me.