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Podcast Episode 030: How radical listening created a global $175 million legacy – Kathy LeMay explores the impact of listening and not pitching in the not for profit sector is the difference between money and meaning

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Listening is a like a muscle that needs to get flexed. Otherwise, it loses power and is no longer a habit. Slow down, and take the time to listen.

Listen to people, and let them be who they are. Listen as a form of respect, and ask questions to know someone’s motivations and who they are.

Learning to listen changed how Kathy LeMay handles fundraising to fulfill missions that create social change. Rather than pitching and asking for money, she embraces radical listening.

For over 25 years, Kathy has been an internationally-recognized public speaker, philanthropic advisor, global social change fundraiser and published author whose purpose-driven life centers on lifting up the voices, stories, leadership and influence of the world’s unseen social change warriors and freedom fighters.

Listening and not speaking has helped Kathy to raise about $175 million for causes she represents.

Tune in to Learn

  • Kathy’s stepfather’s role as a listener and how he helped others by showing up
  • Kathy went to rape genocide camps in Bosnia to listen and do social change
  • Money raised is the outcome of passion
  • Everyone has a story different than what they appear to be
  • Learn to listen to people’s stories and respect where they are coming from
  • Success is seeking to understand
  • When was the last time someone really listened to you?
  • Establish trust and have someone’s best interests at heart
  • Listening can be awkward and uncomfortable; interrupting is enthusiasm
  • The more successful you are, the more you should be talking – not true
  • Less anxiety makes you a better listener; have less stress in business leadership
  • Put others first and create something that serves their needs
  • Redefining what success looks like
  • Don’t make assumptions: Kathy’s first visit to the Four Seasons for fundraising
  • Getting glimpses of lives in worlds that you don’t understand
  • Listen for what is unsaid and grief
  • What you do makes a difference and changes lives
  • Talking about vulnerabilities is not a liability, but shows you care
  • There’s a reason why people support something and why it is meaningful to them

Links and Resources:

Kathy LeMay

Chris Grumm


Podcast Episode 30: Deep listening with Kathy LeMay

Oscar Trimboli:

In this episode of Deep Listening we truly understand what it is to make an impact beyond words we meet Kathy LeMay. Somebody who has brought about significant change in the world through her work with charities known from profit and partnering with philanthropies. So, Kathy’s been into warzones, Kathy’s been fundraising and turn industry on its head, an industry defined by pitching and asking for money. Kathy describes the impact of radical listening and how listening and not speaking helps her to raise over $175 million for the causes that she represents.

Listens now as she tells a story of her time in Bosnia and meeting a man in a wheelchair and calmly and simply just listening to him.

Listen to the story of Linda, an early influence in her charitable life and how Linda helped her to understand that listening for meaning and not just the words is the way to make an impact.

Let’s listen to Kathy.

Oscar Trimboli: 

What’s your favourite story that brings that meaning to life?

Kathy LeMay:    

I’ve been thinking about that because it’s my step-father and I watched … he was AA counsellor and people used to come our door at interesting hours of the night who were really struggling. And you kind of hear this pounding on the door and Rick would get up and let them in and suddenly there was a pot of coffee being made and someone just sitting and saying everything that is going in their life and happening to Rick. And realising that isn’t he gonna respond, isn’t he gonna offer to help, isn’t he gonna offer to fix it, isn’t he gonna say they can stay here? You know, and just think, “He’s just listening and realising if people would leave, kind of, hugging him and thanking him. Thank God you were here. Thanks for the conversation.”

I was really struck by people saying more conversation when Rick hadn’t spoken a word. So I just wanted to give credit to that because I witnessed Rick really listening to people and not fixing it but just by showing up that there was a transformation that happened.

And I would say for me, the most compelling story was when I went to Bosnia in the middle of the war when I was 24. So that was 1994 and I went because I had read about in Time and Newsweek about the rape genocide camps and could not quite believe it. This was happening in the place that had the Olympics it’s not so many years earlier and I had a hard time imagining it. This was happening to women in kind of modern day when I was in my ’20s, not something I read about but my generations in very first big … were worried about tragedy. Rwanda would happen shortly after that.

And so I flew there and ended up going by myself. So, the person I was gonna go with couldn’t make it and there were no cell phones at the time and no social media. I think a couple of people had giant shoe size phones but outside of that what we have today wasn’t there and I have to say that I remember saying goodbye to my mother and she said, “If you can find a phone, call your mother,” and I said, “I will.” And she said, “But if for some reason I never see you again, well done.” And I share that because my mother was able to listen to who I was in the world and let me be that and not say, “You can’t possibly go, who could you help? You’re only 24 you’ll get hurt.” A list of things but she paid attention to who I was and said, “Go.” And that’s a form of listening that’s rooted in respect that has really made the life I have possible.

Shortly to say that I went there and I was there by myself for a few weeks. I hired a translator who was remarkable and who allowed me to do what I still think is maybe some of my best social change work of my life and in today’s version of philanthropy it would be, “Well what would be outcomes in your trip? How many people did you help, what did you do while you were there and it would be that which we could quantify? And what I realise now about  that trip that made it for me powerful and my hope is … that made it meaningful for the people I met is what I did most of the time for the time I was there is that I listened and through my absolutely wonderful translator, was just so gracious and translated everything being said to me.

I sat across from people who had lost limbs, who had lost children. I met women who had walked out of rape genocide camps and sat there as close as I could to them, holding their hands, them grabbing on to my wrist and telling me every single thing that had happened to them. I was … you know it was a fascinating thing to just be witnessing people’s experience and taking it in and I couldn’t fix it and I couldn’t change it and I couldn’t end the war, I was this kid.

But I remember particularly this one man who was in a wheelchair and it was such this rickety donated wheelchair and he had lost from his knee down both his legs and he lifted his shirt up just as high as he could lift it and showed me this stab wound and it wasn’t healed well. And was telling me about what was done to him and crying and I’m holding his hand while he’s showing me this and he’s crying and I’m crying with him. And at the end he said this to the translator, he said, “It’s so nice to share this story with you and you don’t have one to match it.”

And I have to say Oscar that moment has stayed with me my whole life that I did not have that story to match, that did not happen to me, I’ve never had to live through a war like that. And how much people needed to be seen for what they had gone through and be known for that and for me to have recognised the courage that he was still alive and I did. And I came home and ended up raising a whole bunch of money as a volunteer for the folks there. But much like you said about the donor who gives the check, the money is the outcome of the passion and it wasn’t that hard to raise it because I heard stories and because I cared. But I had stories because I listened.

And I remember my step-dad listening to the people struggling with alcoholism and I got to go and listen to people who just personified courage to me and I could not believe their ability to endure what they were enduring. All of the people and very especially the women and children that was extraordinary to me. And there’s not a person alive who doesn’t have a backstory, every single one of us has a story different than what we appear to be.

The woman with the fur coat at the Four Seasons had a story, I have one, you have one, your wife does, every single person. And those stories make up this world and if we can listen for a while to someone’s story I actually do think you end up respecting someone so much more than you might have at the outset, you end up understanding where they’re coming from. I think that you become better at what you do because your life is not just about you and what you’re trying to do, but you understand other people’s lived experiences and I think my new definition of success is my capacity not to be understood first but to seek to understand.

Oscar Trimboli: 

As we think about the audience right now … thinking about Kris Graham and what she would say, we need to tell the audience right now.

Kathy LeMay:    

Kris is just this incredible leader who really mentored me around great listening and one thing Kris did well is she joyfully listened. People would tell stories and she was so there, she was so into it and I remember thinking, “My goodness where does that exuberance come from?” She felt lucky that people were willing to tell her story.

I think the invitation from Kris would be, “You don’t have to be in a certain sector to listen to people, it will enrich your life to do it.” And as much as you can, resist the urge to interrupt, to correct someone or to share a story you have like it or to show someone a data point on where they may be incorrect and remember the last time someone really listened to you.

And I asked someone this recently, “When was the last time someone really listened to you?” She could not call on it, she couldn’t. She was like, “No, not with that, no.” And she said, “I don’t know.” When you’re really listened to, you know and you feel differently about the person who listened to you and there’s a trust that gets built. And I think it’s a great thing in life if someone looks at you and says, “May I get your trusted counsel?” And I think that trust is built from really listening to someone and having their best interest at heart.

And what Kris Graham taught me well and does so well is she believes in building a community of people that rally behind something and if you want a community you have to know who’s in it. And you gotta take the time. So, she has taught me to slow down and take the time.

What it took me a bit to get is it can be really awkward to listen and not interrupt. It can sometimes feel really, really uncomfortable and you so badly wanna go, “Oh, no, no, no, I said this thing, but is,” I just did a fundraising training this wonderful group of fundraisers in Victoria, Canada and I had them paired off with each other. And I gave them two questions and said, “So just take some time to think about how you wanna answer to that. Person A is gonna ask, Person B is gonna respond.” And I looked at person A and I said, “So look at me person A, no matter what they say, no interrupting.”

And they all looked at me like, “I’m not gonna interrupt Kat, wheel it in.” And I knew that within less than 60 seconds the person would … I watched people put their hand over their mouth and then the person who was sharing was hysterically laughing and afterward I said, “So how was that?” And everyone said, “So hard,” but it was not interrupting out of any arrogance, it was enthusiasm. “Oh my goodness, I had that same experience, oh my goodness, I can’t wait to share.”

And what I say to people is, “I promise you’ll get your turn.” But often if you ask someone one question much like Oscar you’ve asked me, I start answering and it’s not until I’m a few minutes in that I think of something else that I wanna share that I hope … that just emerged in me that I thought, “I haven’t thought about that in forever.” There’s unbelievably great gems inside people. If you can just pinch your wrist or something to prevent you from interrupting in the first two minutes, it won’t feel that awkward to really deeply listen to someone.

And most people will say if they have a death of a loved one or a really bad challenge at work or something going on it’s a big deal and you listen, you don’t have to fix or have a solution. Most people would say to you later on, “Thanks so much for listening that helped a lot.” And so knowing there’s nothing I can fix in people’s lives and it’s not my job. But what I can do is radically listen and kind of in that maybe build that community that we all say we need to get us through this world.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Kathy, I’m intrigued, what prompted you to write 2018 as a year of listening for everybody?

Kathy LeMay:    

Yeah, it’s a really good question. I wish that I could say it’s because particularly in my country right now, none of us are listening to each other and all you have to do is take any glance at any form of media. And it [seems to be the winner is the one who drowns out the other person even if you do not have and are not making the case that’s reasonable or helpful or thoughtful, you can drown someone out. And it’s not even your more clever, it’s if you’re louder or more boisterous or more aggressive.

And so, it would almost seem I’m responding to that landscape. The truth is I’m actually responding to me, that for a long time I was an excellent listener and I started to notice that I was losing that quality, and I wondered what was going on for me, but I would think about it for a moment, question it and say, “No, it’s fine. I have a lot of objectives I have to achieve, I have a lot of goals. I have this company I have built, I have things I have to accomplish and I have to go, go, go.”

And I kind of drank that Kool-Aid that the more successful you got, the more visible you should be and the more you should be talking, but there is so much about, “Well, what’s your brand and what are you saying out there? How much are people seeing you?” And I started to get sucked in to that vortex of this is who I’m supposed to become if I’m going to make it.

If in fact me getting quieter and listening more means, I will not continue to have success, then that may be a club I want to revisit and see, do I actually wanna join it? I noticed myself interrupting people that I cared about, not because I didn’t think what they were saying was important, but because my own anxiety about needing to move forward my agenda took over.

And there just was a moment where none of it really felt like who I am, and I thought, “Oh no, I think I am playing house here. I think I’m playing at something, I think I’m trying to be something that I’m not.” And I thought, “I’m going to shut my trap for a little bit, because everybody already knows what I think, it’s not as though I’m gonna say something new and grand out of nowhere.”

And I just sat with people and said, “May I ask you somethings about your world and your life and your work?” And I just was smiling all the time, I know that sounds a little Pollyanna but legitimately, it was the antidote to despair for me. It was, “I can’t believe how bloody thoughtful the people are than I know,” and people that I necessarily sure I would have a lot in common with, I found out I had much more in common with than maybe I would have guessed.

And I loved listening to people, and I somehow felt like I was going away from being successful, and I was moving toward being wise.

And I thought, “I’m gonna quiet down for a while and try and cultivate it.” So, that’s what my listening has been and I am so digging it. And interestingly, I’m getting more successful, which is not something I thought would happen.

Oscar Trimboli: 

At level one listening, it’s about listening to yourself, and as you went through this journey of listening to yourself, what did you hear back from yourself?

Kathy LeMay:    

It was a little uncomfortable because the first was that I realised that I’ve had this life long fear of becoming invisible, that I some … convinced kind of in my DNA that I am forgettable and replaceable. And needing to be present invisible at conferences, events, galas, needing to have a role in each of them where I wasn’t a participant, but I was always speaking in some way was really about trying to fill that black hole of if I am not seen for year, people will forget I was here.

I think that less anxiety makes you a better listener. As I decrease the anxiety by building a community of people and not needing the success to just be mine, not again out of arrogance but out of a sense that I had to prove to myself that I was good enough and now that I have removed a lot of that anxiety and that old story that may have served me for a while and just stopped as I got older. I now sit with clients or prospective clients and I don’t feel the need for, “Oh, my goodness I don’t have to rush to turn them into a client or I don’t have to rush to close a gap because it’s all not on my shoulders. And I’m sharing responsibility.”

I have a chance on behalf of my company to go and sit with a potential client and say, “So what do you think about what we’re offering? What does it seem like? Does it make sense to you? Is there anything about it that jumps out as, God, Kathy I really love this or is there something where you look and say you know I want it to make sense for my life but here where it’s not,” and I can really hear that about thinking, “No, I have to close this person in order to make this business goal.”

I’m seeing by really 100% putting the person across from me first that I am then creating something that actually serves their needs and I’m sure I’ve done that in the past but not as well as I’m doing it now and I’m really, really loving it.

So, each time I’m sit down with a person it’s a little bit Christmas for me because I know they’re about to share with me a wealth of information that’s gonna make my [inaudible 00:28:13] grow and then I’m gonna go to that to with my team and say, “What do we think what this person shared? This feels like gold to me what they just said. How can we do something that’s valuable for a lot of people?” That’s great, that is anxiety free leadership for me and I’m not sure I would have remained in the past, there was a lot of anxiety for me. I thought I was just ploughing through it and the stress was a big part of it. And now really realising you can choose to have less stress in business leadership.

And kind of what I thought it looked like until I realised, “What if it wasn’t so manic and what if listening steadied and slowed it all down and growth was healthy and normal and not big and realising something doesn’t have to be a big meeting, a big warrant, a big win in order for it to be successful.” So, redefining that has also helped redefine what a success looks like.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Is there a donor story that really stand out that highlights that impact?

Kathy LeMay:    

Yeah and this thing about listening that I’ve been realising Oscar and thinking about is it seems like it’s much like anything else. That it’s a muscle that needs to get flexed and if it doesn’t, it’s an easy thing to get out of habit from.

So, years ago I was doing some fund raising for an international women’s humans rights groups and that’s in my ’20s. So, I was new and my friend was on a board of directors for this group I was raising money for and she said to me, “You know what Kathy you’ve got meet my friend Linda she lives in New York. She’s gonna love this organisation, she’s gonna love you. I think she really will make a gift towards this.” And I said, “Excellent.” I get the phone number and I call and it is the assistant to this woman who is kind of her gatekeeper and we have a conversation and she realises who I am and says, “Okay great, we’re confirming breakfast with you and Linda,” was the woman’s name. And she said, “She’ll meet you this morning, at this time, at the Four Seasons in New York.”

And I’m sitting and going, “What?” Because I had only ever heard about and read about the Four Seasons and so I had a sense that maybe this was just a couple of class levels above me and really, I’m thinking the whole time, “Is there a Dennings that she wants because I could trade us to that.” And I was nervous, I was still a kid and this felt a bit out of my league and I got to the Four Seasons and I went early. I remember really thinking, “Is this a nice enough outfit that I’m wearing.” But I wasn’t making that much money so you know not going to nice department stores and thinking, “You know what it will just have to do.”

I get to the Four Seasons and I’m waiting and in comes this woman and she is looking around in that way that you know if someone’s looking for you. But I thought to myself, “Oh no, no, no. No, there’s no way this person can be my appointment because this for women’s human rights group and this woman walking in has a big hair and a lot of makeup, a Full Length Mink Coat and incredibly tall stiletto heels like that thin, thin heel and I thought, “No way.” And she walks right over to me and she says, “Are you Kathy? I’m Linda.” And I stood up and said, “I am. It’s so nice to meet you and my heart is just racing.” And she said, “I’m so very sorry that I’m late and I kept you waiting.” And I said, “No, my goodness, no it’s fine.”

And the waiter comes over and says, “I’m ready to show you to your table,” and I froze again. I just thought, “Seriously, she has her own table at the Four Seasons.” And I’m thinking the whole time, ” Don’t blow it, don’t blow it.” But I can feel the swell of stress and the thinking, “Tell her about the organisation. The other pitch that you know, it’s the best you can do. Cross your fingers and hope something comes of it.” And we start walking to the table and a nice busboy is there with us. And I’m walking just behind her and she takes off her Full-Length Mink Coat and without turning around she stretched her arm out and handed it to me. And so what’s coming at me is this giant Mink Coat and I’m going, “Oh God, oh God.” And do you know Oscar like seconds that last for-ever. And I am thinking, “Take it. Take it. Kathy take the coat. Just take the coat.” And the other part of me is thinking, “Oh, I can’t.”

And so, in that moment I thought I have to talk to her. I have to tell her and I recalled one of the many wise things that my mom said to me growing up is, “Just remember you don’t have your dignity if you rob someone of theirs.” So leaned forward and I put my hand on the small of her back, which is this thing that women can just do if we have to connect with each other about something. And I said, “Oh, Linda.” And she turns around quickly and I said, ” So I’m a huge animal rights activist,” which I am, and I said, “And it would be a little bit difficult to take your coat but I’m wondering if it would be okay if I found someone to hang up both of our coats.”

She just stopped and she kind of leans down and the poor busboy I think is thinking, “I’ll take it. I’ll take the coat.” And he’s so nervous and when she lifts her head back up she’s got tears filled in her eyes and I’m thinking, “I’m fired. That’s it. That’s the end. I can’t believe I said something.” And she looks at me and she said, “Can I tell you why I was late today?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “One,” and she took her hand starting at her head and kind of went down her whole body and back up and said, “It takes a long time to look like this and I have my husband’s reputation to uphold.” And I just froze kind of thinking, “Oh my God.” And she said, “And also our friend Sue told me that you’re awfully smart about all of this and I was a little intimidated to come today.”

And I stood there and I said, “You were intimidated. I’m just so glad I didn’t give you my coat because it’s been held together with duct tape right now on the inside of it.” And we laughed and the busboy took her coat and we sat down and she said, “I’m just so sorry about the coat, it’s just this instinct.” And I said, “No, no, no, it’s okay. I just didn’t want us to get off on the wrong foot. I feel really excited about this work and I’m looking forward to talking with you about it.”

And I said, “Instead of pulling out a pack and talking to you about the group. Can I ask you how you know Sue and can I ask you what about being involved in this kind of work, felt like I wanna take the meeting with this woman I’ve never met?”

And we talked and I listened. And my goodness she had this life that I felt so ashamed of myself that when she walked in I had made assumptions about her because I was wrong. She was smart and interesting and she told me that when she grew up in her household, she and her mother were the only females and at dinner every night, her father and her brothers would talk about the social issues of our time and she and her mother were not allowed to speak. She said, “I need women’s groups as much I think as many people do. I think people think because of the resources I have, I don’t need them.” And she said, “I want to invest the money that I have there so I just don’t want any other girl to be silenced the way that I was.”

And then she said, “Who are you?” And I said, “Oh my goodness like me and my life.” She said, “I’d like to know about you and your life,” and I just told her about my life and I haven’t ever been that open and upfront before. I had kind of hid my background or hoped my clothes didn’t reveal it or my hair cut at the $10 hair cut place somehow wasn’t always just screaming that I was from the lower financial classes and I always tried to pass. You know what my mom’s from Finland. I have these high chick bones, and I always tried to figure out how I could pass for a higher class level. And I just told her the truth about my life and we just sat there and told each other the truth and she listened when I spoke and I listened when she spoke.

And I thought about that story Oscar because at first glance it doesn’t necessarily seem like a listening story but the first is that … and you reminded me by asking the question earlier about listening to yourself. I remember reading Gandhi as a kid and not really knowing what he meant but he would say, “If you can listen to that still small voice inside you,” and I’m not sure that I 100% knew what he meant. But I think moments like that for me, that’s an interpretation of what he meant.

I could have just taken the coat and then had one of those regular kind of fundraising meetings and later on resented her, “Who does she think she is?” And like all of that stuff and I thought, “But aren’t I responsible for breaking that dynamic in some way? Isn’t some of this finally on me, I’m a grown up?” So I first listened to me that said, “If I’m gonna do this authentically with people, I’m going to have to be authentic with them and then give them a chance to tell their story to me.”

So, for me listening is about also the willingness to tell your own story or not just your bio or your resume but your actual story about your life. And I think my fundraising has been based on that. Is that I now don’t assume that because someone can write a lot more zeros on a cheque that I’m able to … that they have everything worked out. I think I thought they did and it’s been an incredible learning to be in philanthropy and see people in their full humanity and not an idea I have about them.

Oscar Trimboli: 

You talked about listening, making an impact beyond words, in the case of Linda, what do you think the big difference is in terms of what she might have donated and what she ended up actually contributing?

Kathy LeMay:    

Yeah, I mean actually quite a bit because at one point we are having this great conversation and you know, I asked her what she meant about having to uphold her husband’s reputation by what she looked like? And she really talked about that quite a bit and I remember thinking at that moment there’s … I can’t recall who, but there’s a poet who says, “They’re rooms of experience I could never enter.” And I suddenly realised that there were lives and worlds that I didn’t understand.” And she was giving me this glimpse into her life which was exceptional and I was doing the same in return and at one point she opens her bag and pulls out a chequebook and she said, “So how much would you like?” And I said, ” Do you wanna see the pamphlet and the brochures that I have some programme print out?” She goes, “No, I mean, you can give them to me later but not really, I just wanna be a part of what you’re doing.”

And I said, “Well, it’s $10,000 a year for three to five years,” and she said, “Great.” She wrote a check for 10,000 and handed it to me and she said, “Will you not write the name of the group in the subject for me or the forward to line.” And I said, “I will indeed,” and she said, “Just so you know, you could have gotten much more.” And I said, “Are there anymore checks on that chequebook.” And you know, we laughed quite a bit and she said, “I feel it’s a gift for me to be part of this works still but you’re welcome. But I also feel like I’m being given a gift here.”

And I changed my style of how I had been taught how to fundraise and I didn’t talk at someone or pinched them, because people will say, “Well fundraising is really just sales.” Sure, I mean it can be and I’m sure if you make a good pitch with a good deck to someone and they’re inspired enough, they’ll write you a check, but I’m looking to say, “What’s our actual goal here?” And our end goal is to not fund a budget, it’s to attempt to fulfil missions that create social change and how do you know if you can do that with someone unless you have discovered who they are? And you can help them decide, “Is this really the right place for them?” I have turned gifts down from people who I’ve thought, “Hmm, now that I know you, I don’t think you’ll find a home at this organisation, it’s really different than what you’re looking for but here are groups I think you should pursue. Because ultimately, we need the resources to go where people’s hearts live and I think that’s when I see the change happening.

So, I’m not sure what she would have given. I know she kept giving and kept giving even after I left and I do like to think that that first breakfast meeting at the Four Seasons, which at its outset was completely intimidating to me, became something other than what I expected.


Oscar Timboli:   

How do you listen for what’s unsaid during those meetings?

Kathy LeMay:    

That’s a really good question. I think because I’m sometime listening for where people’s heartbreak is. You know there’s this thing in social change where you’re expected to I think talk about the wins and the success and the opportunity and the possibility. But those of us who do the work no matter what our role is, are carrying some grief and heartbreak about how some people have to endure the lives they have to endure. And I think I’m often paying attention for people’s grief, because it can be a really lonely thing to feel grief stricken about the state of the world, but feel like, “Well I shouldn’t burden people like that or it’s not helpful if we talk about it cause we have to bring solutions and outcomes and results and possibilities.”

But I’m usually really hearing people’s despair and overwhelm or sadness and I’m listening for it. And sometimes it’s subtle and it’s quiet, it’s one word that they say or it’s how someone turns their head away and doesn’t look at you for a second because they’re feeling it. And I often just … I’ll ask people that and say, “How’s your heartbreak about the state of the world these days?” And I’ll say to people, “You know, mine really tethers, there are times that I’m okay and other times I feel like, “Oh, here comes the undertone again, shit and I’m getting pulled.”

And I was just sharing with the donor the other day, there are times where I wonder if my 25 years in this field has made a difference, I’m not always sure and I hope it has, but I have moments of thinking, “What if it doesn’t?” And she said, “Oh my God you think that, I think that all the time.” And I said, “You do?” And she said, “All the time.” And I said, “Have you shared that with other people?” And she said, “No, I think I haven’t because, you know, I make these million dollar gifts and I think people think because I do this and there’s … because of you, these lives will be changed and I’m given award, the black-tie affairs and all of that, that I have to carry the upbeat banner and I don’t want people to feel they have to care of me around or that I’m feeling disparaged about their work. I’m not, it’s just a melancholy some days about the world than and did my drop in the ocean matter?”

And so, I’m paying attention for that because it’s really … I’m quite aware how present it is in me that you can have and achieve and in social change and you know you’ve helped these children in this area. Or you’re able to help folks down the street at a house fire or any one of these things that feels meaningful to you and then here comes the tsunami of stories about the next terrible set of things that’s happened and you think, “Holy cats and like even is it working what I’m doing?”

So, I’m listening for grief, because I think there’s more of it in social change than maybe gets named out loud. I think supporting each other around it, I think, gets people’s leadership to the next level. My friend in corporate America said to me, “We never talk about our vulnerabilities the way you all seem to in social change.” He said, “That’s a death wish in the industry.” And she said you just are always, “I’m gonna make sales, I’m gonna make goals, we’re gonna hit. You don’t talk about things that feel like you’re a liability.” And I think for a long time I thought that my sadness that creeps up quite a bit was a liability until I recognised that it’s a strength cause it means I actually still care and I think if you’re gonna be in social change really legitimately caring kind of matters.

Oscar Trimboli: 

For outsiders when people make donations they think about how much they contribute, whether that’s time or money, but often there’s meaning behind what they’re contributing, how do you explore what it means to a donor, rather than what it is?



Kathy LeMay:    

To me the idea of really deeply radically listening is rooted in curiosity. That you’re not looking for what the person says to tie it back to one of your goals but that you’re looking for the undiscovered country in their own mind that you haven’t discovered yet.

And so, when I say to people and start off with, “Tell me why when you think about supporting children throughout the world, why is that important to you, when did you know that that’s what mattered?” And one of them goes, “Oh, well, you know, I went to this event and I saw this speaker and this work that they were doing for kids and who are living in low income situations or who had survived a war.” They’ll give me these wonderful examples and then I say, “Yes.”

“So a lot of people probably were at that same event in the room with you, they were also inspired, but then maybe when they went home didn’t continue to work and you took it to the next level, how come? What is it about kids that has you say,” and I keep asking and keep asking until I get a sense of this person’s motivations and what’s really there and why this. And there are great stories when you ask enough questions and really listen for someone’s deep story and I could write books about … I was asking people three to five questions and the things that they then shared with me after. Many times, that they would say, “I’ve never shared this out loud before, or wait, until you were asking, I’m not sure I’ve articulated it.” Or mostly what you’ll hear from people is, “This is a deeply personal issue for me and here’s why,” If you really ask and if you really listened.

There’s a reason that people support what they support and why it’s so meaningful for them. It may sometimes be a family member had this illness or, “I travelled to that country once before, 20 years ago and now I’ve read this situation is unfolding.” And those happen, but there are usually people’s real reasons for getting behind something are really deep for them and incredibly meaningful and I’m better at my job because I’ve asked over and over. And I had someone ask me once, “Does anyone ever feel like you’re intruding?” I would say one time there was one person who said to me, “Could you do me a favour and not ask me any more questions because I’m just feeling overwhelmed by it.” And I said, “Absolutely.” And weeks later she wrote me an email and said, “You know, you’ve asked me the thing that are really important and I’m almost ready to start answering them but not quite yet.”

So, yeah, so that one time it wasn’t the exact right approach for that person but for the most part, I find that in my sector the donors and philanthropists aren’t used to being asked, about what’s on their mind and what they think and what they’re aiming to achieve and why it’s so important to them? They’re just used to being pitched and name one of us who can be endlessly pitched? And really then know if we’re moving into our purpose.

Oscar Trimboli:

A lot have been viewing people at the top of their profession, they typically take a different path where the rest of the industry is going, and while the rest of the charitable industry is speaking, pitching and selling, Kathy was listening deeply, to what’s unsaid and connecting the donor with their purpose, to understand, what’s important to them, so that Kathy could listen at the level of meaning.

I love her term radical listening because there’s a depth to Kathy’s listening that was quite extra ordinary and I think part of that was role modelled beautifully by her step-father Rick and her mum, in the story when she farewelled her daughter to go to Bosnia, and to a warzone, and her step father who role-modelled beautifully, how he listened to people as an AA counsellor, in the middle of the night with a cup of coffee and this people just hugged him for listening.


How could you listen a little bit more deeply? How bigger an impact could you make if you radically listen the way Kathy does? $175million in 25 years, I think that’s only the start of Kathy’s journey, and I don’t think that’s the money that she’s most proud of, it’s the impact she’s had, for children, for women and for men in warzones.


Thanks for listening!



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