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12 habits of successful change-makers: radical listening & asset-based approaches

The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.

Habit #8: genuinely believing in people is harder than it seems – listening can be the key

Overwhelmingly, charities work on the assumption that each of us is valuable, worthy and capable of transformational change. Yet we rarely allow the people we serve to drive our work. Despite this, the Social Change Project found that some of the most effective change-makers know how to let people drive their own change – whether as service users, campaigners or volunteers.

Taking these ideas to their logical conclusion, we should design services and engagement that give people greater control. Not without expert support or guidance but, certainly, without the ‘we know best’ culture that so many of us struggle to break free of.

The day-to-day demands of running an organisation can be barriers to change. Every chief executive is familiar with the pressure to be accountable for performance, to offer funders and donors guarantees of impact, to create frameworks that evaluate individuals’ work. Finding room in these systems (often already in place and deeply embedded) for people to think differently, with no guarantee of results, can feel impossible. But I would argue that if this job belongs to anyone, it belongs to chief executives.

Some organisations live and breathe the asset-based approach. Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire is a small charity doing big things, and they’ve done it by believing in people first and foremost. They don’t think of themselves as a provider but as an enabler, supporting people to find their own way away from ‘the edge of coping’.

Above all, they do something that we could all learn from. They listen.

Grapevine listens hard to what people want and need, what they fear and avoid, and what they hope for. Then they get to work. They look outwards to the wider community for help and opportunities. They crowdsource, think outside the box and hustle.

This freedom to design the response that people need, rather than what’s on offer, has been enabled by Grapevine’s own culture. Leadership that encourages creativity and bravery has been crucial. They don’t measure success in numbers (services delivered, people back into work, passing exams), it is judged by those most qualified – people themselves. A job or a certificate is no real measure of whether my life, confidence or health has been transformed, I can feel it in how I respond to the world. This means evaluation is retrospective and unpredictable. Funders have put their faith in Grapevine and it is paying off.

The art of listening, and believing in people’s value and potential, is a habit every organisation should strive for. SMK has made its own changes in pursuit of it. The Social Change Project started with a year-long, intensive listening exercise which, ultimately, led to us changing our entire approach to training. Again, funders put their faith in us and it paid off. We no longer teach change-making as a formula but as a toolkit of ideas, skills and approaches that anyone – not just professional campaigners – can learn from.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about this habit is how uniquely well-placed civil society is to embody it. We can step back far enough to see the bigger picture, to develop analysis and insight about the communities we serve. Yet we can be close enough to people that we are trusted to listen to their needs, fears and hopes. Our response to this privileged position should be to listen with all our might and respond accordingly.

Previous blog in the series: Habit #7, understanding others

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

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