Three Ideas for Bringing Empathy into Systems

June 12, 2012

Udaya Patniak, Patricia Baker, and Nancy Roberts at the CT Council for Philanthropy Annual Summit

Udaya Patniak, founder of Jump Associates, had just finished giving his keynote speech, “Standing in Their Shoes: How Widespread Empathy Leads to Better Decisions,” at the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy Annual Summit, when senior program officer Elizabeth Krause’s hand shot in the air.

“Raising my hand in front of several hundred people is uncharacteristic of me,” said Elizabeth. “But I was dying to make the work more relevant to organizations who work on systems change issues. How does one develop empathy for systems?”

Udaya had just spent the past hour illustrating how empathy in its most powerful form does not exist solely within individuals, but within organizations. In this context, empathy doesn’t mean compassion; rather, it means the ability to step outside of ourselves and see the world as others do.

Foundations that have a deep, intuitive connection to the nonprofit organization and communities they serve can enable better grant-making. (Learn more about the connection between empathy and improved grant-making here.  Article written by Jump CEO Dev Patniak, who is also Udaya’s brother).

Udaya’s examples, however, were concentrated on direct service organizations. In one example, he discussed how grant-makers wanting to develop empathy for a soup kitchen can go “secret shopping” by having a meal with and talking to beneficiaries of the kitchen’s services. They can directly experience how those services are delivered by the organization.

“When you want to stimulate systemic change, however, the role of empathy becomes more unclear,” said Elizabeth.

Udaya shared steps to high-empathy grant-making:

  • Make it about others
  • Get out of the office
  • Bring the outside in
  • Invest in what it takes
  • Lead from the top

In this video, Elizabeth takes this a step further and offers three ideas for how systems-change organizations can embed empathy into their work.

What is your organization’s stance on bringing an empathetic approach to your work? Do you believe it will make you more effective? What other ideas would you share with Elizabeth around empathy and systems?

4 Responses to Three Ideas for Bringing Empathy into Systems

  1. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

    • Elizabeth Krause says:

      Thank you for sharing these resources, which are new to me and something I look forward to checking out.

      Udaya Patniak was quick to note that empathy is not the same as compassion. The center and magazine you reference seem to connect the two. Would you be so kind as to help elucidate the distinction and connection between the two concepts?

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Lina Paredes says:

    Reading/listening to this blog makes me think about the relationship between privilege and empathy… perhaps choosing empathy as a practice is a strategy to counter the privilege we have, particularly in foundations.

  3. Elizabeth Krause says:

    Thanks Lina. CT Health staff have been learning about transforming white privilege in order to achieve our vision of health equity. It’s great to begin linking some of our newly acquired lenses.

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