Learning is a Two-Way Street

The practice of reflection and learning is much easier said than done. At foundations, we often ask (or require) our grantee partners to engage in the recursive process of planning, acting, reflecting, and learning. This practice is something I deeply believe in and one which, if adopted and tailored to the needs and capacities of organizations, can yield stronger results. During my three years at The Colorado Trust, a private grantmaking foundation, I’ve been a part of strategies where we’ve asked grantee partners to become learners and to essentially trust us that failure is okay, and is to some degree even expected, especially when engaging in novel, untested strategies.

Yet, throughout this process, the “unit of analysis” has always been the grantee organization. In order to “walk our talk,” however, in 2010 we decided to become one of those “units of analysis.” At the time, we were at the outset of a new grant strategy, Project Health Colorado, to build public will and support for access to health in Colorado. We decided that the foundation team managing the grant strategy would also engage explicitly and systematically in strategic learning. We did this not simply as an exercise in modeling learning, but in large part because we felt that it would be fundamental to the shifting nature of the issue we were addressing and, accordingly, how key decisions we made could enhance the work of our grantee partners.

As such, much like our grantee partners, the consultant organization that supported the grantees also worked with us to engage in several strategic learning activities, including intense period debriefs, half-day debriefs, data collection and interpretation, and other reflective activities. In our experience, effective adult learning practices often require, for example, incentives (internal or external), a supportive organizational culture, and a clear and direct purpose. Suffice it to say, all of this took time, resources, and hard work.

In the context of strategic learning, the rubber meets the road in the practice of actually doing something with what you learned. Through these activities, we made several key tactical decisions that enhanced our management of the strategy, including identifying ways to better facilitate grantee networking, restructuring facets of grantee technical assistance and finding new ways to support individual grantee projects.

Of course, not everything went perfectly. In some instances, we weren’t as rapid in our “real-time” response to what we learned as we should have been. Likely, there were times when we sacrificed reflection and learning for simply accomplishing the task at-hand. And, I’m sure there were times where we repeated mistakes. However, one thing I am especially proud of (however biased I may be) is that we were unafraid to talk about what didn’t work. These talks took place not simply in the formal setting of a consultant-led debrief, but in the informal one-on-one conversations when we had a chance to digest what worked and what needed to be done better.

So here we are three years later. Reflecting back on the experience, I learned that asking others, namely our grantee partners, to engage in practices that we, as a funder, aren’t willing to pursue is simply not good enough. It’s not good enough to talk the rhetoric and hyperbole of learning and reflection, without explicitly doing so yourself. I learned that the practice of learning is by no means a secondary task. Learning requires attention to time, resources and building a culture of productive failures. To this end, it’s not enough to acknowledge failures. If you don’t do something with what you learned through failure or success, then the task is only half complete.

I invite any and all thoughts you may have on this topic and look forward to hearing about your experiences.


Phillip Chung is the Assistant Director of Research, Evaluation, & Strategic Learning at The Colorado Trust.

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