What Will it Take for Philanthropy to Learn?

October 2019

In collaboration with evaluation and learning leaders in fourteen foundations, we experimented with how to integrate learning into the way philanthropy works. Our “Lab for Learning” revealed several ideas about what it takes.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation supported this work.

Philanthropy lately has been paying a lot of attention to “learning.” Grantmakers for Effective Organizations holds a biennial conference devoted solely to this topic and recently put out a new guidebook on learning. Two full issues of The Foundation Review were released in 2019 on this topic — one on foundation learning and the other on collaborative learning.

To be sure, sector buzz on learning is not new. Foundations have long focused on improving their strategic learning so that grantmaking decisions are informed and data-driven. They have grappled with many questions about how to integrate learning into their social change work: How do we avoid past mistakes and build on what we already know works? How do we ensure data connects to decisions? How do we learn whether we are making progress and adapt when we are not? How do we incentivize and reward learning?

This interest in improving strategic learning in philanthropy remains strong as foundations, for the most part, still have not cracked the code on mastering it. But their interest in learning is now about more than just improving their own strategic decisions.

Learning is imperative to equity efforts.

After decades of sector growth largely characterized by foundations aiming to do things bigger, better, and more strategically, many foundations are pausing to reconsider both their moral obligations and their assumptions about changemaking. Recognizing that they hold the tools — power, privilege, and resources — that can both contribute to and combat inequities, they are examining how diversity, equity, and inclusion are inextricably tied to impact.

To be more equitable and impactful, foundations are recognizing that learning, and unlearning, has to be an integral part of their work.

In spite of good intentions, many philanthropists (who are predominantly white) and the consultants who support them (also predominantly white) bring a set of assumptions and biases to work each day that can reinforce white privilege and cause foundations to be overconfident in the wisdom of their own thinking and strategies. They also can lead philanthropy to overlook or underestimate the power of structural and systemic factors (including racism) that keep social problems rooted in place.

The stakes are high to get learning right. Many helpful tools to facilitate learning have been developed, but so far we have lacked clarity on the changes we want learners individually, in teams, and in organizations to experience. The sector needs to think rigorously about what constitutes high-quality, actionable, and equitable learning, and what it really takes to make it happen.

What does it take for foundations to be dynamic learning systems?

With support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we have been researching and experimenting with how to weave learning into the fabric of philanthropy. We have done this in collaboration with a set of evaluation and learning leaders in foundations. These leaders are the individuals in their organizations who typically are charged with ensuring learning happens. Wanting to test our collective ideas in real-life settings, we locked arms and embarked on a journey that we aptly named the “Lab for Learning.”

Learning leaders from fourteen foundations participated in the year-long Lab (see the participant list at the end). Through a facilitated process and an intent to benefit both participating foundations and the broader field, Lab participants had the opportunity to experiment with, learn from, and adapt their approaches to supporting learning, with the additional benefit of rich inputs from a curated group of peers. Participants developed action-research-style experiments that attempted to integrate learning into their foundation settings and processes.

Several Lab participants have committed to sharing their own experiences with learning — what they’ve experimented with, why it matters, how it’s gone, and what they’ve learned along the way. See articles from:

We will add more participants’ reflections as they are shared. As Lab facilitators, we also wanted to share several core concepts that have both guided our work and have become clearer through experimentation.

We have several “ground truths” about learning in philanthropy.

Our experiences working directly with Lab participants, along with our many other accumulated engagements with foundations over the last two decades, has revealed three “ground truths” about what it takes to support dynamic learning in philanthropy.

1. Learning requires a transformation in how foundations work, not just what they know.

The challenge of supporting learning is not just a technical problem. It can’t be solved with the right tool, the right template, or even the right information. Philanthropy must shift how it works: adopting different norms and conventions, engaging in new ways of thinking and communicating. To make this concrete, we identified five habits that we think are essential to high-quality learning.

The habits are drawn from a variety of sources, including our research, our own observations, and the collective insights of the Emergent Learning Community of Practice hosted by Fourth Quadrant Partners. They include:

  1. Making thinking visible. We need to identify the hypotheses and assumptions that undergird our thinking and pinpoint about what we need to learn. This habit helps us to identify where we have the most uncertainty in our strategies or thinking, and therefore where we have the best opportunities for learning.
  2. Asking powerful questions. The kinds of questions we often pose — Did the intervention work? What are we learning about a particular issue? — may lead to information that is a useful input into learning, but they often don’t help us determine what to do next. This habit enables us to focus on questions that, if answered, will make a real difference in how we do our work. [We offered Lab participants a webinar on how to ask powerful questions.]
  3. Combating our biases. Analysis made without attention to our biases and disconnected from quality data can lead us to learn the wrong thing and make uninformed or even bad decisions. This habit ensures the inputs we use for learning are rigorous and systematic and not just based on what we have gathered from our own limited vantage points. [This includes cognitive traps that affect philanthropic decision making, as well as racial, gender, and other implicit or explicit biases.]
  4. Attending to causal inferences. We need to explore the relationship between our actions and their outcomes — intended and unintended — in order to learn about the choices we have made or could make. This habit helps us pay attention to what did or did not happen as a result of what we did, and to explore alternative explanations for the changes we observe.
  5. Answering the “now what” question. After we have experienced an event or received new information, ensuring we learn from it requires asking ourselves what happened, why it was important, and what it implies about our future actions, or What? So What? Now What? This habit ensures we don’t skip the third question; it forces us to identify how insights generated will be applied (even if no action is warranted).

Our Lab participants have found two of the five habits to be particularly fundamental: making thinking visible and asking powerful questions. For foundations interested in building learning habits, they recommend starting with these.

For her Lab action experiment, Laila Bell, Associate Director of Learning and Evaluation at The Duke Endowment, saw her participation in a cross-functional team charged with re-engineering the foundation’s end-of-project reporting as an opportunity to work on the habit of making thinking visible. The work team’s goal was to make this process less of a pro forma requirement and more about helping staff to share their learnings about the work as grants were ending. The team made several recommendations, including minor coding changes in their Blackbaud grants management database to better enable the logging, extraction, aggregation, and use of learning questions, process notes, and insights. As the team articulated, “These changes would result in better grant documentation as thinking is made visible and memorialized in the online record.” Based on initial testing, Laila predicts the new system requirements “will create a concise summary of insights generated throughout the funding period” and produce input for program officers’ individual and collective reflection about projects and future funding decisions.

2. Organizational systems acutely affect our ability to learn.

Our ability to practice learning habits is strongly affected by the systems in which we work. We have to think about the personal, social, and structural dynamics that get in the way of (or reinforce) our effective collection and use of information.

Foundations are systems. They have their own cultures and related assumptions, norms, standards, and practices. The “source code” of foundation cultures often can be traced back to their founders and the sources of their wealth — e.g., technology, banking, specific industries and manufacturing (e.g., oil, steel, tobacco, automobiles).

In his book Decolonizing Wealth, author Edgar Villanueva makes the point that, established and run primarily by white men and women, most foundations started with and have sustained white-dominant cultures and are white-centered systems. For example, they tend to discourage debate and alternative points of view and reinforce characteristics like perfectionism, defensiveness, and fear of open conflict. And as one Lab participant observed, foundation norms keep staff busy all of the time, not allowing them any time to reflect.

All of these characteristics get in the way of learning. They especially get in the way of equitable learning, which requires being accountable to the perspectives of grantees and the groups and communities with whom they work. Most foundations historically have seen themselves as the experts, sometimes gathering input into decisions, but rarely ceding any control over them.

We encourage foundations to take stock of their learning needs with a dispassionate (evaluative) look at themselves as systems and how people work within them. We invite them to examine their cultures and how those cultures impact learning, intentionally or unintentionally. We also encourage foundations to look carefully at their existing mental models and paradigms about how information gets shared and received, and to unlearn what is no longer useful — or worse, harmful.

To help us think about what to look for and how to change it, we’ve used the work of systems theorist Donella Meadows. Her work resonates because it recognizes both systemic constraints and possible leverage points for addressing them.

Adapted from Systems Theorist Donella Meadows

Meadows’ illustrative system leverage pyramid identifies a series of leverage points for changing a system, ordered from least powerful at the bottom, to most powerful at the top. We adapted the pyramid to show how these levers can relate to learning.

Meadows says that we often are disappointed in the results of systems change efforts because we tend to tweak the least powerful levers in the system — such as skill building or the flow of resources or information. We find this is true with learning in philanthropy, where many foundations support learning with tools and training alone.

High-quality and more equitable learning cannot be achieved through lower-level systemic interventions. More powerfully impacting a system to support learning requires pulling multiple levers at once or tapping into higher-impact levers that include information flows (who is included in learning) and structures (who has access to information), as well as leadership levers that create incentives and rewards for people to learn and adapt.

The Barr Foundation is a case in point. Their Director of Learning and Evaluation, Yvonne Belanger, knew that Barr’s President was eager to prioritize and improve the foundation’s learning. Yvonne leveraged this leadership support (a strong lever at the top of the systems pyramid). She worked with the President and Vice President of Strategy to create a year-long organization-wide series of skill-building sessions that introduced the whole foundation to all five learning habits (one by one). Together they identified goals for the series and how it would address actual problems in the foundation. The President approved a budget to execute it and opened up the foundation’s master calendar to ensure scheduling didn’t compete with intense times of foundation work. Yvonne then worked with the Vice President to go through an After Action Review in front of staff to demonstrate the making thinking visible and asking the now what question habits, to model a willingness to admit uncertainty and failure, and to signal the importance of learning for everyone’s work.

3. Learning habits are best introduced into regular work routines, often implicitly.

Our research shows that the biggest perceived barrier to program staff learning in foundations is finding the time. Program staff are extremely busy with an ever-expanding set of responsibilities. We have to tackle this barrier in order to build better learning habits.

While at times there may be good opportunities and reasons to work on learning habits explicitly, like Yvonne at the Barr Foundation did in the example above, we find that more often it works best to introduce learning habits more implicitly, integrating them almost stealthily into existing work processes and products (like Laila’s approach at The Duke Endowment). With this approach, staff don’t experience and react to efforts to improve learning as new and as a separate add-on to their already heavy workload. Instead, they experience learning as a way of working that gets their existing work done better.

A mandate from leadership to re-engineer or create a new grantmaking process can create a window of opportunity for introducing new learning habits. For example, when learning agendas or evaluation plans are required as part of a program strategy, we can ensure they are framed by powerful questions. These kinds of opportunities create a good authorizing environment for change.

Irit Houvras, Director of Strategic Learning, Research, and Evaluation at American Jewish World Service, used an implicit approach to introduce and institutionalize a learning habit when rolling out a new grant reporting system. She focused on the habit of answering the “now what” question. Irit had noticed that with the prior strategy reporting, teams were spending most of their time talking about context and the grantee-level details (“what” happened), rather than the implications of that information for the future. Their strategic thinking and decision-making were not clearly linked to the reporting. Irit addressed this gap by designing a new reflection process to increase the time staff spent reporting and discussing the implications of what happened and what to do with the information, or answering the “so what” and “now what” questions. Staff responded very positively because this approach made better use of their time. In fact, the response was so positive that Irit soon observed the new habit had migrated into other foundation activities, including a board meeting agenda.

We need to focus on equitable learning.

Even if all of the above habits are performed regularly, learning will improve, but it still may not be equitable. Our future plans for the Lab for Learning include focusing more explicitly on the ties between learning habits, systems, and equitable learning. We want to integrate learning with the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work that many foundations are engaged in.

Equitable learning requires aligning our learning practices with an equity approach — and even more powerfully, using learning as a tool for advancing equity. Our colleagues at the Equitable Evaluation Initiative are helping us to think about what this means in practice.

To achieve equitable learning, we have to pay attention to questions like: Who are we accountable to? Who gets to ask the questions that get answered (it shouldn’t just be the funder)? Who is involved in answering them? How do their experiences, frames of reference, and approaches affect the answer (e.g., evaluators are trained in a discipline that was founded and developed primarily by white men)? We have to pay attention to what we need to know and learn as well as how we learn it.

On what we need to know, we need to answer critical questions about how problems and strategies affect different populations; the underlying systemic drivers of inequity; and how cultural context affects social problems and our efforts to address them.

On how we learn, the ways in which we gather and make sense of information should be designed and implemented in a way that is commensurate with the values underlying equity work. They should be culturally competent, multi-culturally valid, and oriented toward participant ownership and empowerment. This means that we need to be deliberate about making our learning processes and systems equitable, including:

  • Examining who is defining what’s important to learn and for whom. (e.g., do grantees and communities get to decide for themselves what questions are meaningful for them?)
  • Answering questions with data that bring in perspectives normally unheard or discounted
  • Attending to the assumptions built into learning questions that might undermine equity efforts (e.g., when we say “How can we design our capacity building supports so they increase grantee effectiveness?”, what do we mean by effectiveness?)
  • Paying attention to who participates in sensemaking from data, whether the conversation is designed in a way that accounts for power differentials, and who gets to define the “now what.”

Common values should drive both foundation learning and DEI efforts — e.g., accountability to communities, interdependence with grantees, inclusiveness. Both also require systems change to be meaningful and sustainable, particularly pushing strong levers that get at infrastructure, rules, and leadership.

We look forward to continuing our collaboration with existing and new Lab participants who also are committed to the necessary and hard work of ensuring that foundations are not just prioritizing their own learning, but are engaging in equitable learning to drive equitable results.

Thank you to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for their generous support of the Lab for Learning, and to our intrepid Lab participants:

  1. Irit Houvras, American Jewish World Service

2. Yvonne Belanger, Barr Foundation

3. Erica Orton, Bush Foundation

4. Kendall Guthrie, Jumin Kim, Lauren Salazar, College Futures Foundation

5. Myron Marshall, Cleveland Foundation

6. Liz Ruedy and Devon Ysaguirre, Democracy Fund

7. Laila Bell and Bill Bacon, The Duke Endowment

8. Tom Kelly, Hawaii Community Foundation

9. Courtney Brown and Jasmine Haywood, Lumina Foundation

10. Vera Michalchik, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

11. Efrain Gutierrez, Obama Foundation

12. Veronica Olazabal and Shawna Hoffman, The Rockefeller Foundation

13. Holly Powers, The Russell Family Foundation

14. Huilan Krenn, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Center for Evaluation Innovation

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