A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How an Improv Class Helped Me Be a Better Listener and Funder

Driving to my first improv class, I was so terrified that I almost threw up. The idea of creating spontaneous theater with strangers, and being vulnerable in that way, made me extremely uncomfortable.

At Exponent Philanthropy’s Master Juggler Executive Institute that I attended a few years ago, the facilitator told all 19 of us foundation executive directors to take an improv class some time during our year. I don’t think anyone did. Improv is one of those scary things that most people think they aren’t cut out to do.

Last year, I decided to sign up. At my first class we were instructed to tell a story as a group—each person adding a line or two to build on what the student prior to you said. The story line was “a five-year-old’s first time at the beach.” If you are like me, you probably are already picturing some story ideas in your head. One by one, the students started telling the story, each adding a line or two. I had my own story line running. When the guy next to me said, “All of a sudden, the boy’s hot dog turns into a wiener dog, jumps out of his arms, and runs down the beach,” I could have continued with, “The boy started crying because he was hungry, or the dog started frolicking in the surf.” But I sat frozen in thought because what I heard did not match what I was thinking in my head.

Our instructor taught us a key lesson in improv: No matter what, be emotionally committed to what is unfolding in front of you, and keep the momentum going. If my mind had not gone blank and I could have mustered some great enthusiasm, I could have said, “And the cow jumped over the moon,” and been spot on! But, it was my first class, and I was learning the principles, so I cut myself some slack. Besides, before the night was over, at some point 90% of the students had that same petrified look on their faces as I did. But don’t go weak kneed at that thought. Even when a student struggles or freezes, the class supports your try! Honestly, it is a great place to learn how to fail well.     

After 24 weeks studying improv, I’ve come to understand two main lessons:

  1. You can’t run your own story line in your head and listen at the same time; and
  2. The goal on stage is to enable your partner(s) to look, sound, and do their Improv is a team sport.

Learning how to listen, how to enable others to look, sound, and do their best, being committed emotionally to the unfolding story, and to keep the momentum going are all the gold rings in improv. I think they are also gold rings when working with our grantees.

These skills not only can make us strong leaders, but they can help cultivate us into more curious and compassionate human beings.

What if when we are meeting with our grantees, we came open and listening—nothing rummaging around in our head? No story line to impose on what we are being told? And what if our goal was to enable our grantees to look, sound, and do their best? What if we could really hear about their struggles, what they need from us to run effective and efficient organizations, and we were emotionally committed—leaning in, empathetic, and curious?

What if we stopped our story lines and truly listened to their stories. How would it change our work?

Another benefit to practicing improv (and it is a practice) is a calmer and more relaxed attitude. It helps you to think quicker on your feet, and the camaraderie on stage to make magic with your partners is thrilling. Even if you fail, you just laugh it off while ramping up your enthusiasm.

Add a new skill set—and mindset—to your funder’s toolbox, even if it is out of your comfort zone. Your grantees will thank you!

Lindsey Stammerjohn joined the John Gogian Family Foundation in 1996 and was promoted to executive director in 2007. As a small foundation with only an executive director and grants administrator, Lindsey assumes broad responsibilities in finance, operations, and grantmaking. 

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