Learning How to Learn

LearnMost philanthropies seek to be strategic and have an impact. Yet few build their own internal capacity to be strategic grantmakers. In particular, most funders forget to intentionally learn from their initial piloting and testing of strategies so that they can make early modifications and course corrections.

Learning isn’t hard to do, but it must be intentional, documented, discussed within your team, and it must lead to decision making. It can’t simply exist inside a program officer’s head. One of our clients, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, asks themselves, “What will make or break this grant?” when deciding whether to recommend a significant grant to their board. They are clear on the risks involved and what needs to happen to make the grant successful. The answer is documented in the staff summary of the grant. Six to nine months later, like clockwork, they revisit the grant during program team meetings to assess progress on that risk and identify ways they can help ensure success. That is intentional learning.

Chances are, you already have many kinds of information that can inform your learning: grantee reports; grantee convenings; evaluations conducted by grantees; dashboards; your understanding of changing conditions (staff turnover, local or federal policy changes, the economy, etc.); and the observations, knowledge, and instinct of your staff and consultants. You could also seek new insights at minimal cost: conduct an online survey, convene all your stakeholders, or solicit outside perspectives.

As you review information and have conversations, use “learning questions” to help guide you. For example:

  1. What are the top three things we have learned about our strategy thus far?
  2. If we could do it all over again, what would we do differently?
  3. What has surprised us? What are we seeing that is different than what we originally expected?
  4. What progress are we making on our strategy overall?
  5. What progress have we made on each of our short-term and long-term outcomes?
  6. What are some of the early accomplishments/wins?
  7. What has been the most challenging?
  8. Are there areas where we have not yet made much progress? Why?
  9. What are the current conditions now compared to when the foundation launched this strategy, and how has/will that impact the work (e.g., policies, systems, other funding streams, staff changes, etc.)?
  10. Have we made modifications or improvements to any aspect of our strategy, approach, or funding since this strategy was created (or since we started working at the foundation)? Has that helped?
  11. At this time, do we anticipate making any modifications or improvements? If so, what are they? By when will we make that decision?
  12. What opportunities do we see with this strategy going forward?
  13. If we were board members, what would we want know about what has been learned/accomplished?

The Saint Luke’s Foundation used intentional learning to update their board and inform strategic planning. The staff asked themselves the questions above, summarized their key insights, discussed them within their team, and shared them with their board, all within a few months’ time. The board was thrilled – it provided them with timely information they needed to make decisions about strategy and direction.

Learning takes an investment of time – but it’s time well spent. Intentional learning also can feel as if you’re intentionally hunting for failures, so it’s important to keep an eye out for things done well in addition to areas for improvement. In either case, you’ll find opportunities that you can embrace in real time as your work progresses, rather than waiting for a post-mortem evaluation after everything is ended and it’s too late to increase your impact.

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Want to learn more? This post was adapted from The Putnam Guide: 5 Best Practices of Extraordinary Grantmakers, available for free download on my website. You can also check out my new book, Confident Giving.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and was recently named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers.” Her clients include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, among dozens of others. Learn more at putnam-consulting.com.

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