If any area illustrates this point, it is education. After all, listening to students should not be a radical idea — especially now, with more young people enduring depression, stress, and anxiety.
But it certainly felt like a radical idea back in 2008, when Fay Twersky (then of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and now president of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation), Valerie Threlfall (now president of Ekouté consulting), and one of us (CEP President Phil Buchanan) were seeking support for the idea of YouthTruth, a national student survey designed to provide actionable feedback to school and district leaders. Critic after critic, including many at foundations from which we were seeking support, pushed back on the very idea that a mechanism to listen to the candid perspectives of young people was valuable.
While some funders did step up with significant support, the challenge more often than not was for us to prove that student perceptions were linked to some objective measure of “impact” or student “outcomes,” which at that time usually meant test scores. One foundation leader we pitched said that he thought student perceptions were “orthogonal” to impact, which caused Phil to surreptitiously look up the word on his phone and then recognize the meeting was not going well.
To that leader’s credit, he and the foundation he led ultimately became supporters of YouthTruth. But his initial resistance typified a perspective that still today remains too prevalent across areas of philanthropic work: a perspective that denies the voice and even the legitimacy of the very people we should care about the most — the people we seek to help.