I’m sitting in a room full of nonprofit administrators, playing an executive named Warren, and trying not to laugh. My partner is role-playing a sales chief and seems just as clueless as I am about the terminology of commerce and business. (Discussions about sales occur rarely in my job as news director of a nonprofit community radio station.) But we do share the language of empathy, and that’s what this exercise is about—trying to feel out the other person’s needs and address them without giving up one’s own. It’s an interplay we practice every day in the nonprofit sector, whether by trying to understand a funder’s true motivations or by understanding what a volunteer really needs.

The exercise is part of Carole Robin’s presentation on “Influence Without Authority” at the recent Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford University, where Robin lectures in organizational behavior. While I found the exercise and talk amusing, I can’t say I agreed with all of Robin’s premises—particularly her definition of exchange as an instinctual basis of all human relations. When I went to New Orleans after Katrina, I gave 110 percent of my time, energy, and money for months to help with relief work there—and I would never expect anyone there “owes” me anything. I think most charity and volunteer work is done in this spirit—not to get something in return, but out of empathy for people in trouble.

Empathy motivates many people involved in nonprofits like the one I work for—as well as the desire to change things for the greater social good. This focus on the other makes people a bit reticent to even ask for favors, let alone keep a running tally of whom they can tap for what.

That said, the reality in a nonprofit workplace is that we are constantly covering for each other. I gained influence in my organization by taking action and carrying out long-delayed projects that were mostly outside of my job description. For example, I helped organize a schedule and curriculum for all of volunteer trainings, consolidating and standardizing a process for scheduling trainings, and then integrating newly trained volunteers into departments with specific tasks. This helped every staff member in the organization, who all depend on volunteers, and the project gave me credibility early on in my employment. True, it was not my job to organize the training program, but the volunteer coordinator was incredibly grateful and helped cover for me when I needed a hand.

Focusing on other people is something that comes naturally to many nonprofit practitioners. What’s harder for us is asking for help when we need it. Having a sense of empathy and an intuition for other people’s needs is key to building one’s credibility in these types of settings—especially since people rarely articulate when they need help, because such requests are seen as a drain on an overstretched organization. Our development director wouldn’t admit to the rest of the staff that he was overwhelmed by membership data entry. But when I noticed this was happening, and sent some volunteers his way, he was eternally grateful.

To me, that’s what Carole Robin’s talk was about: feeling empathy with the people you want to influence. Despite my initial misgivings about the talk, it got me re-thinking the interactions I have with one particular co-worker that borders on adversarial. Having empathy with someone trying to exert control within the workplace is a bit more difficult than helping people stranded in a flooded city. But it’s definitely possible. And I think being able to look at any situation from another person’s perspective is always a good tool to have in my toolbox.

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