Peer Coaching: The Gift of Deep Listening - Exponent Philanthropy
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Peer Coaching: The Gift of Deep Listening

“With capable coaches at their side, nonprofit leaders can learn more about themselves, about their organizations, and about how to manage people and conflicts, how to delegate responsibility for day-to-day tasks, and more. No other intervention can teach these things better than effective coaching, and we hope that grantmakers, both individually and as a field, will work hard to advance the application and practice of coaching in the years ahead.” —Coaching and Philanthropy: An Action Guide for Grantmakers

Peer coaching is the practice of listening and asking good questions to help an individual uncover, discover, or develop something important to their learning or growth. Unlike professional coaching, peer coaching is done by colleagues in the same organization or field who take turns coaching each other, usually in pairs or groups of three or four.

“Peer coaching is giving someone the gift of your presence,” says Robin Gallant, executive director of Gallant Family Foundation, “which allows someone to give presence to themselves. Once they achieve quiet within themselves, a whole world of solutions can emerge.”

Peer Coaching in Philanthropy

In the field of philanthropy, donors, trustees, staff, and family members are seeking peer coaching to work on goals such as:

  • Reflecting on your values and passions as a donor, and what change you want to see in the world
  • Thinking through ways to “get it all done” with few or no staff, identify the most impactful work, and determine what to “let go”
  • Sorting through sometimes conflicting and confusing demands of philanthropy and family, and achieving greater clarity about your role in a family foundation
  • Finding the confidence and courage to take on more public roles as a philanthropist, such as convenor, community resource, and advocate
  • Gaining greater clarity on potential areas for future learning, career development, and personal growth

“Peer coaches help me explore solutions that work for me,” says Janis Reischmann, executive director of Hau`oli Mau Loa Foundation. “When I ‘find my way’ it’s something I own and therefore is a reflection of me. It’s a more durable solution, typically. Also, figuring things out for myself, with the help of a peer coach who asks great facilitating questions, helps me to understand the issue more clearly and realize that, generally speaking, I have a lot of answers within myself. I just need to find them.”

The Process of Peer Coaching

Peer coaching is practiced as a series of sessions, often over just a few weeks or months, to help individuals solve a specific challenge or achieve a specific breakthrough or insight. If the pairs or small groups continue and work on other goals, finding the right personal chemistry, their peer coaching can continue for years.

As a peer coach listens, he or she asks clarifying questions, encouraging the other person to explore the challenge or opportunity more deeply, articulate thoughts more fully, make connections, and perhaps think about it in a new way. The peer coach also makes observations, affirming that he or she hears what the person said and understands what the person might be feeling.

The peer coach generally refrains from giving advice, or asks for permission before doing so. This is perhaps the most difficult part of peer coaching, but coaching calls for listening, providing a sounding board, and helping the person find the answers herself. In these ways, peer coaching is also different from mentoring, where a person may listen and ask questions, but also offers experience and advice.

The Coach Learns and Grows Too

It takes training and practice to learn the discipline of peer coaching, and, once people begin serving as peer coaches, they develop and expand their own skills and perspectives in ways they can apply to philanthropic work and other arenas of life. For example:

  • Peer coaching exposes one to ideas and challenges framed in new or different ways. For Janis Reischmann, “Hearing issues that concern my peers has sharpened my own sense of my world, and made me aware of things which I had not previously noticed.”
  • The discipline of peer coaching can help you engage grantees and other community organizations to learn about issues and develop your knowledge.The skills of listening carefully, concentrating, and asking clarifying questions empower you to be an effective interviewer as you reach out to learn more about your community or field. Also, funders trained in peer coaching can coach members of grantee organizations, as a way to help them solve problems, explore opportunities, or gain clarity on issues.
  • Being a peer coach is a way to serve colleagues in the philanthropy field, helping them grow and build their effectiveness. “I am contributing to the betterment of the field,” reflects Janis Reischmann. “I am in a coaching relationship with women who are leaders in their organizations. When they problem-solve and come up with answers to issues they are facing, they are better positioned to lead. I hope I’m contributing, in a small way, to their enhanced leadership. They certainly are to mine.”

See also: The Power of Our Peer Coaching Circle

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.


  1. exponentruth

    Beautiful blog post! Thanks for sharing it. And congrats!

    • Thank you so much. Developing coaching skills is a terrific way for funders to empower colleagues, build talent, and unleash human potential!

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