Your Attention, Please!


Father reading to childrenIf you have ever been a parent of young children, you probably know the utter agony of trying to teach your children to read. Night after night my husband and I sit with our 6-year-old twins and slog through early reader books with titles like A Lucky Day for Andrew and Birthday Surprise. We help them sound out “j-u-m-p” and “s-l-o-w-l-y”, offer encouragement (“you’re half-way done, and you only need to read the entire book two more times!”), suggest proper reading posture (“it would help if you sat up,” “if you shake the book it’s hard to read,” “get your hands out of your pants”) and try to stay awake. It’s truly painful.

But there are lessons in reading to one’s kids that are applicable to us as leaders in philanthropy.

According to an article I recently read in the Wall Street Journal, there will come a magical day when it all clicks. Children will learn to read, create (we hope) a love for reading, and go off on their merry way reading independently. Moms and dads, according to research, will likely stop reading to our kids in a well-intentioned effort to encourage their independence. This is bad.

Someone has actually surveyed kids ages 6-17 and 80% of them loved or liked their parents reading to them because it was a special time together with their parents. Forty percent of 6- to 11-year-olds wished their parents never stopped reading to them! They miss the one-on-one time with their parents. As the article states, the single thing kids want most is total attention from their parents.

Aside from sending me spiraling into a guilty-working-mom moment (I had spent that entire spring break day pawning my twins off onto various playgrounds, pools and fast food restaurants in an effort to carve out time to revise a proposal for a potential client), it reminded me that total attention is what we all want, in our personal and professional lives.

Think of all the staff you have recently hired and “onboarded.” They learned how to master the coffee maker and how your foundation’s grantmaking process works. But you’ve gotten busy with travel and deadlines and haven’t had one-on-one meetings with them in three months.

What about the new board members you’ve brought on? They participated in your board orientation, have attended two board meetings and are beginning to engage in committee work. They are off and running – or at least you think so.

Of course you want to bring on talented staff and board leaders who can work and think independently, and you need to give them space to find their way. But it’s also a wise practice to regularly give them your full attention. As staff and board members gain experience with your foundation and with you as a leader, they are able to ask important questions and share their observations and ideas. They probably have suggestions for how your foundation can streamline operations, leverage relationships, or impact an emerging community need. Those are golden nuggets of innovation and inspiration that can provide value for your work. By giving them your total attention on a regular basis, you signal their value to the organization and to you as a leader. If you pass up that opportunity, their innovative thinking can easily get pushed down and forgotten as time passes and they become accustomed to “how things are done around here.”

Adults aren’t children, and our adult needs for attention are not as simplistic as a 6-year-old’s. But just like a 6-year old, if an adult member of your team has your full attention, trusts that you care, and knows that you are listening, you will build stronger relationships with them and they will be able to offer their full talent to your organization.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a global philanthropy advisor. Want more ideas, tips and tools to improve your giving? Read an article, listen to a podcast, or check out a case study.

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Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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