Over the last several years, philanthropic actors have gradually embraced the fact that being more intentional about learning is critically important to their success. As noted in GEO’s recent publication, Learning in Philanthropy: A Guidebook, “the main reason to embrace learning is that increased knowledge and perspective about how best to address the problems we want to help solve will contribute to greater social impact.” To support organizations’ efforts to design and support the integration of learning practices, a slew of useful resources have emerged. These include a recent issue of Foundation Review, the Guide to Facilitating Intentional Group Learning, Engaging Boards and Trustees in Strategic Learning: A Toolkit, The Center for Evaluation Innovation’s blog posts: Realigning Evaluation Trustees to Incentivize Learning; and Better, Faster, Results – Supporting Learning for Multiple Audiences, in addition to GEO’s bi-annual Learning Conference.
Yet, in spite of these wonderful resources, most organizations have trouble knowing where to start. As we have learned from years of research and practice, building a learning culture is not easy. It requires a commitment to engaging in dialogue, reflection, asking questions, identifying and challenging values, beliefs, and assumptions, and seeking feedback. It requires ongoing learning capacity development of staff, by helping members develop a habit of learning. It means creating or modifying organizational structures and processes to support learning, and using various kinds of data to learn (e.g., from evaluations, grantee reports, research, and public records). And, perhaps most importantly, it means having organization leaders who have a vision for learning, consistently communicate the importance of learning, and model effective learning behaviors.
Lest we think embedding learning into our organizations is impossible, fear not—it is doable! For example, FSG has been partnering with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (EMKF) in Kansas City for the last two years as they’ve worked to strengthen their strategic learning practice. As Matthew explains, their journey reflects much of what the GEO Learning Guidebook covers.
“Strategic learning work at the foundation was started by the Evaluation Department as a mechanism to close feedback loops and increase the capacity of staff to turn evidence into action. Two years later that work has grown to include several related initiatives that encompass the entire Foundation. In addition to the unwavering support of the Foundation’s CEO and Senior Leadership Team, there are three initiatives in particular that we believe have advanced our work the most: 1) the Learning Champions cohort; 2) adapting emergent learning tools from Fourth Quadrant Partners (4QP); and 3) hosting a series of Fail Fest events.
1. The Learning Champions are a group of 18 associates representing every department across the organization. Having volunteered for the assignment, we’ve provided them with tools (e.g., Before and After Action Review (BAR/AAR ) template), training from FSG in the art of facilitating group learning, and monthly meetings where they can get together and share notes about what’s working well and challenges encountered. As the program has taken root within the Foundation, these Learning Champions are increasingly being tapped to assist in other ways, such as leading the creation of annual learning reports, assisting with strategic planning, and facilitating team engagements around operational and performance data. As a bottom-up strategy for embedding learning practices, this initiative has been invaluable for advancing both the practice and broader culture of learning within the Foundation.
In addition to the bottom-up approach, our reflection process at the end of the program’s first year identified a clear desire for a more explicit and structured top-down strategy to help our Senior Leadership Team members better support and advance this work as well. Based on input from FSG, other experts in the field, and the Learning Champions, we delivered a set of specific recommendations that fell into three categories: direct support (e.g. providing opportunities for them to practice learning facilitation skills), modelling good practices (e.g. explaining what lessons, evidence, and experiences have informed key decisions), and incentivizing learning (e.g. during team meetings giving a shout-out to staff that have shared actionable lessons).
2. Along with the BAR/AAR tool, we also adapted the Emergent Learning Table from 4QP into a series of reports that are presented to our trustees in September. This table provides a four-step process to guide learning: reviewing data, generating insights, creating new hypotheses, and identifying opportunities to test those hypotheses moving forward. Our version of the EL Table includes a Year in Review, which summarizes a handful of key evaluation data points from the previous year—highlighting both successes and challenges—and the Learning Report, where staff identify the lessons that have shaped their strategies or grantmaking. Having learning reports that are shared with our board has provided both a concrete deliverable as well as a clear value proposition for the time and effort required to complete them.
3. Lastly, our Fail Fest events have been instrumental in shifting the organizational culture and mindsets of associates about how we define success and failure at the Foundation. These events are open to all staff and feature 8-10 volunteers who tell a story about a project they worked on that failed, what lessons were drawn from that experience, and how they have applied those learnings in similar situations. The first presenter shares his or her story with everyone, and then the rest share out in small-group discussions that are facilitated by a Learning Champion. To help give the event a more open and relaxed atmosphere, we hold them at the end of the day at an off-site location, and provide food and drinks for everyone.
Consistently communicating the organization’s values around smart risk-taking, ‘failing well’, and ‘failing forward’ are important. However, in our experience, staff will align with these goals faster if they can see both leaders and peers discuss their failures (and the resulting lessons) openly and without fear of professional consequences.
After two years, we are still in the early stages of our work to create a culture of learning here at EMKF. We’ve enjoyed some successes, had a few failures, and learned a great deal along the way. We hope others on this journey will share their experiences as well so that we can continue to build a deeper understanding and set of practices for supporting organizational learning in philanthropy together.”