On Listening: Reflections on the First Collective Responsibility Forum

By Joy M. Banks

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) speak, and I remember him saying that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Realizing this tendency in myself, I have pursued many opportunities to learn how to be a better listener over the course of my career. My true purpose in attending this first forum gathering was to listen. To listen to the people in grant funded positions. To listen to the people hiring and supervising grant funded employees. To listen to the honesty and truth everyone brought to the table. And I am honored that I was asked now to reply, not in the haste of the moment but after several months of serious reflection and conversation.

I am still relatively new to the funder side of the grant table. Having previously worked in a mid-sized liberal arts institution and then a music library and institutional archive at a historic garden followed by a brief stint as a consultant prior to joining CLIR, my exposure to funding and grant funded positions was always on the applicant/recipient side. Several of my jobs, both institutional and as a consultant, were funded in full or in part by grant funding. When in a supervisory role, I always tried to be conscientious of the time and talents of those I managed, especially those who were hired in term-limited positions. Knowing that my interns or other workers would not be around forever, I tried to listen to their professional and personal goals and see how the work we would accomplish together could help them achieve those goals after they left. It wasn’t always easy and often meant adapting my own project plans in unexpected ways, but what a privilege to see individuals grow. I thought about this many times as I listened to conversations at the forum; how placing people above objects or project outputs should be our common goal. So now, on the funder side of the table, how can I help to promote this ideal?

I am but one part of a team of workers at CLIR that supports our two regranting programs (Recordings at Risk and Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives). Since the first forum, we have had many discussions prompted by the conversations that took place. I’ll just highlight three people-centered themes I heard and ways we are working to respond:

  • Community is empowering — CLIR has a long history of fostering community and networks through many of its programs, and at the forum I heard how important community can be for those working in or hiring for term-limited, grant funded positions. We are actively investigating ways that we may be able to connect the people of our grant funded projects in meaningful ways to serve them during and beyond a project timeline.
  • Communication is vital — One real issue that was brought to my attention at the forum is that the communications from funders sometimes do not reach those most involved in projects, leaving some key individuals feeling isolated and unsupported by funders. Our grants team is seeking ways to communicate more effectively to all workers on a project, letting everyone know we are accessible for any who have questions. The hurdle in this is that we depend on our recipients to share contact information with us. While we did make some adjustments in our program application to encourage more transparent communication, we continue to investigate other ways to connect.
  • Culture is transformative — As I’ve reflected on what I heard at the forum, I was struck by how a supervisor could make or break the experience of a term-limited worker. Funders can change guidelines and reporting requirements, and we have seen how these requirements can motivate change at institutions. But, we can do very little to change individuals. We do continue to seek ways that we can communicate better management practices across our various programs, discuss ethical hiring practices with our review panels as they evaluate project budgets and plans, and both challenge and inspire PIs and institutions to be accountable to the terms of hire included in their proposals. We feel strongly that participation in conversations such as those started at the first forum and in other arenas are also essential in assuring a positive future for those involved in contingent labor.

By meeting together and sharing our stories and experience, we’ve already started to build community, foster communication, and transform the culture. I am eager to continue listening and learning.