Learning in a Time of Crisis

One thing we can control in this new environment is our commitment to learn from ours and others’ experiences.

Many philanthropic organizations are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing rapid-response funding mechanisms, resources, and revised grant policies. This is requiring program staff and others to make extremely fast decisions and implement new policies and practices almost overnight.

All the while, in the back of their heads, many are asking themselves “How will we know if these efforts made a difference, or if we’re doing the right things?” The need to learn about the effects, influences, and impact of how organizations are responding to the crisis—through data and experiences—will be critical if philanthropy is to be effective in the short-, intermediate-, and long-term.

The Council on Foundation’s A Call to Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment During Covid-19 further reinforces the need to learn during this unprecedented time. One of the eight commitments they are asking foundations to make as part of a pledge to the field is Learn from these emergency practices and share what they teach us about effective partnership and philanthropic support, so we may consider adjusting our practices more fundamentally in the future, in more stable times, based on all we learn.”

Learning in times of crisis requires seizing opportunities for reflection that include creating spaces to think, slowing down, being mindful and paying attention, creating new patterns of thinking, surfacing alternative interpretations, and creating new theories of action. In the fast-paced environments of foundations, finding time for reflection has always been difficult. However, without taking time for reflection and learning, we will never know what worked, for whom, how, and what we should do differently or the same in the future. Ensuring we learn from our current practices is no longer a “nice-to-have,” it is now a “must-have.”

One way to approach learning about the decisions we are making and the actions we are taking is to consider three specific time periods. For example, what we need to learn in the short-term—today, and in the coming weeks—is likely to be different from what we’ll need to learn in the intermediate- and longer-term.

Carving out time to engage in reflection and dialogue with colleagues, peers, grantees, and communities is the first step. The following questions are informed by the work of Donald Schon, who suggests that we engage in three types of reflection:

  1. Reflection-on-action—looking back on personal and group experiences to evaluate reasoning processes used;
  2. Reflection-in-action—occurs as we watch ourselves in action; and
  3. Reflection-for-action—refers to the predictive process for forecasting how we will use what we have learned based on the previous two forms of reflection.

Reflection Questions for Different Timeframes

Within days and weeks (short-term):

  • What options are available? What are the possible consequences of each?
  • What assumptions or inferences are we making?
  • What principles/theories are guiding us?
  • How are we staying true to our commitment to equity? How is this showing up?
  • What is unique about this situation?
  • What cues from the person or group do we see that tell us how they are responding to our behaviors/actions?
  • What is going well?
  • What do we need to change in how we are responding?

A few months from now (intermediate-term):

  • What options did we consider as we selected our behaviors/actions?
  • What underlying assumptions were flawed? Which were confirmed?
  • What did we learn about our immediate response processes, activities, and effects?
  • What would we do differently next time?
  • What would we want to do again, since it worked so well?
  • Where are we still seeing needs, and how do they align with our original strategy? Are there any needed changes to our strategy?
  • For whom did our responses most benefit? Least benefit?
  • What implications are there for how we move forward in the coming months/years?

When the crisis abates (longer-term):

  • What have we learned from how we (and potentially others) engaged in rapid-response funding strategies and practices?
  • What did we learn from the situation that confirms our intuition?
  • What are the lessons learned and principles of effective practice that will position us to respond effectively to a future crisis?
  • How did we alter our knowledge, theories, or attitudes because of this experience?
  • What changes should our organization considering making to prepare for future crises?
  • What and how can we share with the field about what we have learned?
  • What will we remember from this situation?

In addition to finding time to think and talk, foundations should also consider shifting from a focus on evaluating outcomes, grantee reporting, and developing metrics to reflecting on and learning about decisions made, activities undertaken, and the immediate effects of their rapid-response actions. This may mean putting aside some habits or expectations, such as feeling the need to be right or having the right answers; proving that something works; holding information/not sharing; and making sure that everything we produce looks polished, is perfect, or is proprietary.

In the short-term, foundations might cease from surveying grantees to see how they are doing (vs. calling them to see how the foundation can help), requiring grantee reports on a specific timeline, and setting and tracking indicators against targets. It’s not that these accountability mechanisms aren’t important; it’s just that they’re not the most important thing now. Instead, and in the near-term, foundations could support grantees’ learning—within their own organization and with their peers—by providing resources to develop communities of practice, action learning opportunities, and coaching.

This will be particularly important for understanding the impact of the COVID-19 crisis and philanthropy’s response on those historically excluded and who will bear the disproportionate burden of the public health and economic fallout. Ensuring that those voices are included across all aspects of learning—that they are situated in the broader inclusion of voices in the “what,” “so what,” and “now what,”—will be crucial.

Many might ask “Where can we find the time to learn?” In support of internal foundation staff, leadership and the board could engage in a number of learning-oriented activities:

  • As noted above, program teams can embed time in their meetings to engage in reflection on how things are going, what they are experiencing, learning, and struggling with (using a variety of group learning facilitation tools).
  • Program teams can implement before-and-after action review processes to learn about the effects of decisions being made.
  • Program officers can talk with peer funders to learn about how they are adapting their work and are learning from new practices.
  • Program officers could keep a simple daily learning log, in which they can note things they saw, experienced, or understood. These can be shared as desired in a team meeting so that insights can be shared and problems tackled.
  • Program officers might develop a list of questions they could use as they talk with grantees, capturing their learnings on a spreadsheet that could later be shared with others.
  • Evaluation and learning staff can note insights, questions, activities, and strategic decisions if they are able to observe program team meetings. They can document these and share with relevant parties, and if collected over time, could write a 1-2 page learning memo to share.

As time goes on, evaluation can play another critically important role in facilitating learning. As things stabilize, the crisis abates, and life adapts to a new normal, it will be especially valuable to conduct evaluations that surface lessons learned for the foundation and the field.

One example is the retrospective evaluation done by the Greater Houston Community Foundation after Hurricane Harvey. This study not only helped the foundation, the city, and other stakeholders better understand what did and didn’t work during their natural disaster response, but it also contributed to the field’s deeper understanding of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

While we do not know what the future will look like, and each day brings new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe that the one thing we can control in this new environment is our commitment to be curious, to ask questions, and to learn from ours and others’ experiences. If we do this, the sector will be more resilient and innovative, and better prepared to navigate through this crisis and those that are surely in our future.

Learn more about FSG’s work with foundations >

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