The importance of empathy

Mar 30, 2016 | By Ruth Jarratt

Handshake

Fundraising often brings us face to face with some pretty basic human characteristics – passion, generosity, pride. Another is empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people.

At the end of the day, fundraising is about reaching out to others, informing and inspiring them about our work and inviting them to become part of our success. This act of connection requires that we understand where others are coming from, that we empathise with them. 

It's good to talk

Take for instance the business of approaching trusts and foundations for grants. This, seen from a distance, could look like a fairly dry, sterile endeavour. But as in all fundraising, it is a matter of one person talking to another. The fact that the correspondents and trustees of the grant-making bodies often choose to stay anonymous only makes the job harder, the challenge being to communicate something to a person about whom you know little or nothing in terms that they can relate to. 

This is the premise of the course Writing Successful Applications that I have been running for the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy programme.

Together we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the grant makers, faced with the tough job of deploying their finite resources to maximum effect for the good of society.

Empathy flows two ways

A key part of the course is a role-play session in which participants take turns to be both applicant and grant maker, putting themselves in the shoes of the hardpressed decision maker as well as honing their own skills in communicating their case clearly and succinctly. Though many found the activity difficult at first, they reported it as crucial to their understanding of the application process.

"I have sometimes felt that people come on courses looking for a gizmo, a widget that can be bolted on to their existing operation and which will spew forth money without them really having to get too involved, and without the donors getting too involved either. This is not how it works".

The empathy flows two ways: once we have awakened the interest and passion of a donor to the point at which they are wanting to give us money to achieve our stated objectives, we have created in them a sense of involvement which cannot be ignored or turned off without causing misunderstanding and offense. 

The go-between

When an organisation chooses to take the fundraising path it is choosing to travel forward in the company of others, accepting their good will and the responsibilities that go with receiving it. Taking the fundraising route is about achieving independence through inter-dependence, and there is a hint of vulnerability deep within that. So, what is essential to today’s fundraiser to be successful? To all the skills that you will usually find in the person specification for any fundraising post I would add one word: empathy. 

And if I were asked what is essential in the person who manages today’s fundraiser I would say that it is an appreciation of the role that the fundraiser plays not just as interpreter between the organisation and its donors, but as a go-between for the emotions and passions that fuel their giving. So my advice to the manager? Cut the fundraisers some slack and give them the politically acceptable equivalent of a hug from time to time.