Bridge Building or Trust Busting: A Warts-and-All Reflection on "Learning in Public"? | Beth's Blog

Bridge Building or Trust Busting: A Warts-and-All Reflection on “Learning in Public”?

Guest Post, Reflection

Flickr Photo by AnEye4Pictures

Note from Beth: I’m hosting a small army of guest bloggers, grantmakers, who are attending the  GeoFunders National Conference taking place this week in Seattle.   The GEO community is united by a common drive to challenge the norm in pursuit of better results. GEO’s 2012 National Conference  shares a range of perspectives and new ideas for smarter grantmaking that leads to better results and presents opportunities for participants to learn from the wisdom and experience of their peers.     If you’re not attending and curious what funders are learning,  you’ll have an opportunity to read some of the ideas and questions being discussed right here on this blog.

This is a terrific write up of the session I presented on “Learning in Public

Bridge Building or Trust Busting – a Warts-and-All Reflection on “Learning in Public”? – Guest post by Stefan Lanfer

“Stand up if you use all the data your foundation collects,” said Jarod Raynor of the TCC Group at a GEO2012 session on “Learning in Public.”

And then there was a long pause as we all scanned the overflowing room and it sunk in that no one else was standing up either.

It was striking.

And I wondered, “Then why collect it at all?” If it’s just for the sake of compliance, a make-work activity for funders and grantees both, what’s the point?

The point, argued co-presenters Raynor, Kathy Reich of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and  Beth Kanter, co-author of the Networked Nonprofit,  is not to stop doing it (where “it” is evaluating and trying to learn what’s working and what isn’t), but to do so in ways that are transparent, and that build trust, and that make learning a collective enterprise – not one that happens behind closed doors, where funders and evaluators disappear with their data inside a black box, only to emerge with decisions and declarations about new directions.

Packard and the TCC Group collaborated on an alternative approach evaluating the foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness Program. All evaluation data was posted on a public wiki. 1/4 baked, 1/2 baked, 3/4 baked findings were released – including a widely-read and much-commented-on SSIR blog post – before TCC had even finished a draft of their report.

Some of the findings about Learning in Public?

  • It can create a lot of energy – especially for the research and Foundation teams
  • No question about it, it also adds complexity and cost – in dollars and time
  • Whatever raw data is put out there and no matter how sincere the invitation to dive in and swim around in it… few people, if any, end up being willing to spend time to actually do the analysis if they’re not paid to do it
  • If you start publishing/blogging with half-baked data, releasing preliminary findings, like it or not you are spinning – and inviting others to spin, react, and sound-off – and what folks will react to is what you feature in the first few sentences or paragraphs  – not the caveats that follow, or the invitations and links in the final paragraphs to actually look at the data and draw their own conclusions.

All of which is to say, if you are inclined to give this a try, be very clear about why you want people to engage, what your desired outcomes are, and what you intend to do with input. Otherwise, the whole exercise can end up being frustrating. You may get participation because you’re a funder doing the asking. But the experience may feel navel gazing, even elitist, and the result trust-eroding, not bridge building between funders and grantees.

Stefan Lanfer

Stefan manages communications for the Barr Foundation.

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