Using the “Coach Approach”: Colleen O’Keefe, Sauer Family Foundation

Colleen O’Keefe is one of those people everyone turns to. And when you meet her, it’s easy to see why. Executive director of the Sauer Family Foundation, Colleen is warm and gentle, grounded and strong, and being in her presence immediately invites you to relax, open up, and, perhaps, share what’s on your mind.

“In my family, I’m the go-to person when someone has an issue they want to talk through or a situation they need to ‘fix’,” says Colleen. “For years I’ve been conditioned to help by offering advice, because that’s what I was being asked for. But, deep down, I’ve always known there was a better, more powerful way to have conversations with people around solutions.”

For years I’ve been conditioned to help by offering advice, but, deep down, I’ve always known there was a better, more powerful way to have conversations with people around solutions.

So, when Colleen learned about Exponent Philanthropy’s 2016 Coaching for Effective Philanthropy program, her interest was immediately piqued. The program offered to train its participants in the skills of deep listening and asking powerful questions and to use this “coach approach” to create deeper relationships and greater impact in philanthropy.

The program was at the intersection of two things Colleen cares about deeply: holding space for others to share, and using philanthropy to make a difference in people’s lives.

Colleen and the Sauer family are committed to improving the lives of disadvantaged children and their families in Minnesota, and being successful in that mission requires creative solutions.

“So many of our systems that have kids at the center are broken,” says Colleen, “so we have to look for new ways of doing things. And the best ideas aren’t going to come from us as the funder. They’re going to come from our grantees and the children and families that we aim to help.”

Better listening, learning, collaboration

The coaching mindset and skillset that Colleen took away from Exponent Philanthropy’s coaching program has allowed her to listen to, learn from, and collaborate with her grantees, partners, and the community in a much more skillful and impactful way.

Colleen recalls a time when she was meeting with a grantee and listening to her talk about one of their foundation-funded programs.

I was deeply listening to this woman as she talked about the organization’s work. I was curious to learn more from her perspective, so I asked a question in the way we were trained to ask powerful questions in the program. All of a sudden, this wide-eyed look came over her face, and after a brief pause, she said, ‘Wow, I’ve never thought about that before.’  I realized that, in that moment, she reached a new insight. It’s really incredible to see how deep listening and a powerful question can help someone access their own wisdom and inner-knowing in a profound way.

Colleen is grateful to work alongside the Sauer family in this work. “The Sauer family understands that we need to know the community and what they need in order to make a real difference,” she says. “And they’re willing to commit the time it takes to listen, learn, and build trusting relationships. It’s about much more than reviewing proposals and deciding which ones to fund.”

Continuing to bring a coach approach to her work and her relationships in philanthropy is not easy work. “Showing up to conversations with humility and presence, and putting aside whatever distractions or judgments get in the way of my listening, doesn’t come easily to me,” she says.

“I have to intentionally practice with every conversation, and I’m still learning.”