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Four Takeaways from The Learning Conference 2015

Post date: 
June 22nd, 2015
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More and more funders are focusing time and money on trying to understand what’s working and how we can improve. GEO’s 2014 national survey of staffed foundations revealed that three-quarters (76%) of grantmakers now evaluate their work, and our colleagues at the Evaluation Roundtable and Center for Effective Philanthropy have also documented increasing interest and investment in evaluation. Our field is abuzz with talk of performance, assessment, impact and the like.

By these indicators, we could be in a golden age of learning in philanthropy. Yet, many grantmakers I meet are struggling to understand which approaches to take or how to connect learning to strategy. And overwhelmingly, grantmakers are going through this struggle alone.

Our study showed that grantmakers are far more focused on using data gleaned through evaluation for internal purposes, like reporting to the board, than externally. We’re not sharing out what we’re learning, and on the whole we’re not engaging key stakeholders (grantees, fellow funders, community members, other partners) as learning partners along the way either.

Here are four takeaways that the 300 attendees at GEO’s The Learning Conference 2015 explored together in Boston this month:

#1: Learning together is critical

Because of this, this year’s Learning Conference (and GEO’s brand-new companion publication) centered on the theme of learning together. Learning with others at every stage of our work increases the likelihood that we are asking the right questions, gathering more useful information and making meaning of it from a variety of perspectives, using what we learn to drive improvement and preventing others from reinventing the wheel.

The conference featured a variety of examples of collective learning, including a plenary session about The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative. As anyone following the conference Twitter stream saw, Manuel Pastor (of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, assessment partner for the effort) reported on three pivots underway at the midpoint of BHC: from onerous grantmaker requirements to community ownership of the work, from process building to power building and from a time-limited initiative to lasting infrastructure. Manuel, Jim Keddy, chief learning officer at the Endowment, and initiative grantee Diana Ross, of Mid-City Community Advocacy Network, then spoke candidly about the experience of working and learning together. Plenty of heads popped up when Diana asked that funders think hard and be transparent about whether they are genuinely interested in sharing power or just want input from grantees.

#2: We must embrace transparency and failure

Learning together requires embracing this kind of transparency — around what our grantees need and where we can do better. As part of our “fail fest,” five grantmakers shared their own failures. The stories covered a range of experiences: struggling to help program officers develop theories of change, trying to bridge the worlds of professional philanthropy and communities of faith, discovering that a grantee’s ex-employee had been able to “ghost” an organization and steal funding, having no impact despite a major influx of money, and attempting to reorganize an entire field of nonprofits. Yet a few common themes emerged: our egos are tripping us up, top-down change doesn’t go so well, readiness for change matters, and not having a deep sense of what’s going on in communities and with grantees can and will harm your work. Instead of sweeping mistakes under the rug, these grantmakers took them as opportunities to learn and improve their work.

#3: We need to boost our grantees’ and our own capacity for learning

Because so many grantmakers are struggling to put commitments to learning into practice, the conference included several sessions relating to building our and our grantees’ capacity for learning. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and AARP Foundation highlighted how some funders are integrating grantmaking programs and operations to improve internal knowledge-sharing and data use (watch the GMNsight journal this summer for an article about this session!). A case study of how Open Society Foundations embedded learning with others in a two-year organizational change process attracted a standing-room-only crowd. And sessions featuring the work of Mile High United Way, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and Colleges Futures Foundation illustrated how funders can help nonprofits develop cultures of and systems for learning.

#4: Engaging our partners leads to success

Of course, we can’t understand our partners’ capacity needs or learn with others unless we engage them in this work. In other sessions, participants considered how to implement culturally responsive and participatory evaluations, prioritize equity in their learning and co-design evaluation with grantees. Closing plenary speaker Ceasar McDowell described an ambitious effort to elicit community opinions and experiences in Boston, but also urged grantmakers to embrace everyday “micro-inclusions” to counter the micro-aggressions that continually remind marginalized people that their voices aren’t valued.

We hope that conference participants and other funders take on this challenge, considering how to learn with and from grantees, community members and partners in other sectors, in ways both large and—seemingly—small. If you’re engaged in an effort to learn together, GEO would love to hear about your work.

Meghan Duffy is associate vice president of programs at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, a diverse community of more than 500 grantmakers working to reshape the way philanthropy operates. Understanding that grantmakers are successful only to the extent that their grantees achieve meaningful results, GEO promotes strategies and practices that contribute to grantee success.

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