Tri-sector Fellows Inspire on their Journey to Impact: Empathy Fuels Success Across Private, Nonprofit and Public Sectors

By Eric Letsinger, Founder and CEO of Quantified Ventures

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to University of Virginia’s 2017 Tri-Sector Leadership Fellows last week. I believe many of our challenges in health, environmental, and educational problems can only be solved at the intersection of the social, private, and public sectors, so I felt like I was with my people (well, younger versions of my people).

These UVA Fellows are grad students and professionals who have chosen to navigate their careers in the overlapping circles of the private, nonprofit and public sectors. In my opinion, that’s where the fun is! The Fellows seemed to instinctively know that this where the juice is. They also seemed to know that their career paths going forward won’t be linear. The puzzles they’ll work on will be complex and that their “journey to impact” will likely often entail “two steps forward, one step back…sometimes two.” Lasting solutions in this battlefield are not one-dimensional — they’ll have to navigate legal, technological, and policy challenges. And they’ll also face puzzles too big for government to shoulder alone; both the private and non-profit sectors can — and should — play a big role. These Fellows march into the middle.

I believe many of our challenges in health, environmental, and educational problems can only be solved at the intersection of the social, private, and public sectors.

They’ll need sharp tools. So, some are starting off in tech, policy, finance and legal arenas. Others are starting by getting their feet wet on the front lines, in direct services or politics. No matter where they are starting, they all seem to know that it’s not where they will end. They are not seeking traditional careers as much as adventure with impact; they want to move the needle on big challenges and are not necessarily looking to traditional organizations or traditional methods to make a difference. They are arming themselves with frameworks, language, insights, conviction, knowledge, experience and — most importantly — empathy.

As a tri-sector executive who seeks to hire people like these incredible UVA Fellows, I am often asked what characteristic makes one successful in this “middle” area. My answer is always the same: empathy. Empathy is the fuel that makes real, cross-sector stuff actually happen. It’s really hard for change agents within the government to get magnificent, game-changing stuff done. It’s not impossible; it’s just really hard. The same can be said for change agents in the nonprofit and private sectors who also face real and unique constraints and boundaries.

Engaging partners from other sectors requires an understanding of their specific constraints, limitations and guideposts. Wishing others’ landmines away for them doesn’t work. Judging them doesn’t work either (and as an ENFJ, I should know). Understanding constraints and boundaries requires curiosity, a willingness to ask, a strong appetite for listening…and then acceptance. It takes empathy. Getting stuff done also requires candor about your own constraints and barriers — and then trusting others to also accept them.

Engaging partners from other sectors requires an understanding of their specific constraints, limitations and guideposts.

So…if “tri-sector empathy” isn’t an established concept, I hereby declare it one. And I look forward to working with the UVA Fellows as they bring their unique talents to the intersection of social, public, private, and social sectors to solve some of our most entrenched problems.

Eric Letsinger