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New from FSG and GEO: Engaging Boards and Trustees in Strategic Learning

Nearly a decade ago, FSG published What’s the Difference: How Foundation Trustees View Evaluation, exploring how boards and trustees were thinking about evaluation, and providing tools for foundation leaders and staff to help their boards better understand evaluation in the context of grantmaking for social change.

It’s stating the obvious to say that much has changed since then; the world is increasingly complex, with rapidly changing political and technological environments. Since adopting an adaptive approach and a learning orientation are requirements in today’s world, grantmakers and evaluators are paying increased attention to assessing the impact of their grantmaking.  

Engaging Boards and Trustees in Strategic Learning, a new toolkit from FSG and GEO, provides a fresh set of resources for grantmaker CEOs, evaluation staff, and senior leaders to engage their boards and trustees in conversations about strategic learning. Central to this work is the belief that practicing strategic learning is critical to a foundation as it strives to achieve progress on its goals.

In creating this toolkit, FSG and GEO talked to 21 evaluation experts, foundation leaders, and board members, and consulted with an Advisory Group made up of 12 foundation CEOS, senior level staff, and evaluation directors who provided insightful feedback and thought partnership. Our conversations with these experts in the field surfaced 6 “action imperatives” that call for boards’ participation in conversations and activities related to strategic learning.

Staff can use the 10 practical tools we’ve developed to help their boards live into these action imperatives, which means understanding strategic learning, why it’s critical, and how to integrate learning into their work to increase their impact. For example, tools like the Strategic Learning Self-Assessment can help board members understand what elements of strategic learning they are already practicing and where they might need to grow. Another tool, a set of more than 25 discussion questions, provides grantmaker leaders and staff with language for facilitating critical conversations about equity, systems change, and other important topics related to learning with their boards. The 2 case studies we’ve included about foundation leaders engaging their boards in strategic learning help to illustrate these possibilities.

This work was made possible by grants from the Barr Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and Walton Family Foundation who believe in the power of strategic learning and evaluation to improve practice. Here’s what they have to say about the piece:

Strategic learning is essential for foundations’ limited resources to have the greatest impact. The Engaging Boards and Trustees in Strategic Learning toolkit can help foundation trustees better understand their role in strategic learning, positioning them to more effectively partner with foundation staff to use evaluation and other types of learning to regularly inform key decisions and adapt.

– Kim Ammann Howard
Director of Impact Assessment and Learning, The James Irvine Foundation

The toolkit identifies the right questions boards and executive leadership at foundations should ask in their efforts to drive impact. The focus on using evaluation for both accountability and learning is timely and can help foundations improve their practice and partnerships with grantees and external stakeholders.

– Marc Holley
Strategy, Learning, and Evaluation Director, Walton Family Foundation

Engaging trustees in strategic learning about the work of their foundations should be an imperative across philanthropy. It deepens understanding, connects trustees to the core work, and enhances the leadership they provide in stewarding a foundation’s resources. This latest report from FSG and GEO is commendable not only for building on earlier work that explored this key trustee responsibility, but also for providing a range of practical and actionable tools that help to translate intention into action. The philanthropic field will surely be strengthened by a report that should be a must-read for any foundation trustee and leader.

– Jim Canales
President, Barr Foundation

We appreciate our funders’ generous support and hope that other grantmakers will find Engaging Boards and Trustees in Strategic Learning a useful resource in their work.

Download the toolkit >              

Learn about FSG’s Strategic Learning & Evaluation services >

Colleen McCann

Senior Consultant