For Solutions To Complex Problems, Work On Your Listening Skills

If you're constantly hearing a similar refrain in feedback or complaints, you may have just solved a thorny problem. Just ask George McDonald, founder of The Doe Fund.

As a successful businessman in the textile industry, George McDonald passed through New York's Grand Central Terminal every day in the 1980s, just another anonymous face in the sea of men in suits.

Unlike his fellow travelers, McDonald stuck around into the early hours of the morning--for 700 days in a row--handing out sandwiches to the thousands of homeless men and women living in the station’s tunnels.

GEORGE McDONALD

He soon realized that sandwiches were not going to alleviate rampant homelessness and launched The Doe Fund, a workforce training initiative that provides housing, jobs, and skill development. The program was a radical experiment in an era when city government shied away from social services. "I was an advocate, meaning a critic, of the government," McDonald recently told Gawker. "I became a thorn in Ed Koch's posterior.”

Twenty-five years later, the success of the Doe Fund serves as a model for nonprofits and municipal governments nationwide. Grand Central Terminal is now restored to its early 20th century opulence, but homelessness is on the rise again and continually vexes governments. The Doe Fund, though, has cracked a code--it serves 1000 homeless clients every day and last year saw 400 of its enrollees secure housing and long-term employment.

McDonald steadfastly believes that his groundbreaking (if simple) idea and the project’s ongoing success are the result of a technique anyone can use to solve thorny problems: listening closely.

"While I was feeding them, I was listening to what they said," McDonald says. "They said they wanted a room, and a job to pay for it, and I thought well, gee, they want to work. I'm convinced."

Bottom Line: Conviction is the key to providing great service.

Related: The Key To Tackling NYC's Homelessness Problem: Listen Closely, Then Ignore Dumb Advice

--Video Produced by Shalini Shrama // Camera & Edit by Tony Ditata

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2 Comments

  • Listening Impact

    I write a blog about listening, so I know its power and challenges. Still, listening to what people say isn't enough. What admirable George McDonald does goes much further--he interprets what he hears and takes action. 

  • GarySweeten

    We have taught listening and empathic understanding to churches and community groups since doing a doctorate on the topic in 1975.