In a follow-up to my foundational article “What You Thought Was Empathy Was Actually Sympathy,” I dispel some misconceptions about empathy and provide tactical pointers to help nonprofit professionals better embody empathy in their work and avoid the pitfalls of sympathy.

Empathy is not about emotion…it’s about understanding

Rather than try to pull people’s heartstrings, we should be providing our donors more opportunities to deepen their understanding and consciousness around the critical issues that shape our programs. Until our donors understand the perspectives of the people who are affected by our nonprofits’ programs, they will continue to assume, judge, and project their own ideas, values, and feelings onto others.

This is not to say that the act of giving is not an emotional one—it is. The process of increasing one’s awareness and understanding of systemic issues is also emotionally charged. So, let’s harness the power of emotion to deepen learning, enhance self-awareness, and connect with others, not just inspire superficial and fleeting catharsis. 

Actions

  • Provide opportunities to engage your donors in deeper conversations through educational opportunities (yes, even virtual ones!).
  • Ensure your frontline fundraisers feel supported in having difficult dialogues with donors and speaking about systemic racism.
  • Make sure your communications content is helping foster empathy, not exploitation, and make use of my free checklist and tools.

Empathy is not about similarities… it’s about differences

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: downplaying differences is one of the biggest hurdles that prevents us from having meaningful and productive conversations about equity. It manifests in a variety of ways: the desire to swiftly look for similarities, not differences; the belief that we can all get along if we focus on our shared humanity; or the assumption that to resolve any conflict, we just need to find common ground. Although these beliefs are meant to inspire closeness, they minimize important differences that need to be acknowledged for us to better understand one another. Discomfort with noticing and acknowledging differences is what inspires this rush to identify with and cling to similarities that are often superficial (“we both like gardening”) and hyper-generalized (“we all want love and companionship”).

Actions

  • Show diversity of program participants within your communications, refute stereotypes, and show the people affected by the issues your organization tackles.
  • Invite donors to explore different facets of their identities in a group exercise. Many of us don’t realize how different our lives have been until we learn more about each other.
  • If you are in conversation with donors or colleagues who rush to look for similarities before trying to fully understand a group or individual they don’t really know,  kindly explain that the more difficult task is look for differences—and then to look at them, boldly and with openness and honesty.

Empathy is not about my feelings…it’s about your feelings

In a quest to try and feel what someone else is feeling, most people end up projecting what they would feel in another person’s situation. But when happens when you didn’t experience the same situation as another person? If you’re thinking about how you would feel in the other person’s situation, and thus project your own feelings onto them, you are probably exhibiting sympathy. You are supposed to be present and witnessing this other person’s story, feelings, and experiences, but now you’re deep in thoughts of your own history, your own story, your own feelings and experiences. This does not create space for what that other person thinks, feels, and experiences. This is not empathy. What you would feel in their situation is not relevant because you’re a different person. As the metaphor goes, you have to take off your own shoes before you can walk a mile in someone else’s.

Actions

  • Avoid the urge to say, “I know how you feel,” particularly when someone is sharing a personal story of vulnerability
  • Make sure the other person has fully shared their story before you offer yours.
  • Ask for consent before talking about yourself: “I also experienced something like this. I’m open to sharing my story with you, if that’s something you would like to hear.”

Empathy is not about action…it’s about awareness

Empathy is not an action. Funding Black-led organizations is an action. Speaking out against inequitable policies and practices is an action. Having a private and intentional dialogue with someone about micro-aggressions is an action. Empathy is a tool we can use to help catalyze some of these actions, but it is not the action itself. Practicing empathy can lead to enhanced awareness about ourselves and enhanced awareness about others. Practicing empathy can make us more effective communicators and more compassionate leaders, but it won’t solve our world’s problems if we don’t take the actions that empathy inspires.   

Actions

  • Every educational offering for donors must include an ask for the donor to take some kind of action.
  • Ask for something besides money from your donors; ask them to volunteer, to learn, to read, to talk to others in their network.
  • Provide actionable ideas for your donors. Many folks have great enthusiasm for equity but not a lot of precision—don’t leave them guessing at what to do. Provide them with specific ideas for how they can help.

Empathy is not the endgame… Justice is

All the actions that empathy inspires must lead toward a goal, and that goal must be justice. Think about you mission and answer the question: “What would solve the problem besides more money?”
Those are the actions you need to focus on.

But you can’t do it alone. You need the collaboration of other mission-aligned organizations; you need the buy-in from your staff and program participants; and you need the support from your donors.

This is what empathy can help achieve. It’s a means to an end. It’s a means of fostering self-awareness, awareness of others, and skills needed to communicate and collaborate across differences. That is what is needed to solve the world’s biggest problems and to create a just and equitable world for everyone.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for this lucid and very practical exposition. I like how you clearly defined the differences between sympathy and empathy in your earlier post, followed by this very practically-oriented post here.

    One thing, “Make sure the other person has fully shared their story before you offer yours.” Many people feel that they’re validating the other’s story by offering their own. But I’ve always felt that a truly empathetic reaction is when you leave yourself totally out of the picture. ‘Countering’ their story with your story always feels to me as though you are cheapening the other’s experience.

    My most favorite interactions are when I am completely in the service of the other. When I am so absorbed in their story and my efforts to understand their singular experience, that I forget myself. I don’t lose myself in the identity of the other, but I do feel as though I’ve done my best to truly understand their perspective.

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