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.
A Culture of Learning – Guest post by Teri Behrens
The GEO 2012 conference is off to a great start. The opening plenary was both fun and informative – an improv company “performed” the results of GEO’s latest research on the relationship between grantmaking practices and grantee success. At the “Learning in Public” breakout session, Beth Kanter, Jared Raynor (TCC Group) and Kathy Reich (David and Lucile Packard Foundation) sharing the Packard Foundation’s experience with learning in public. The foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program evaluation was conducted very publicly, using social media, focus groups, a wiki – lots of mechanisms for getting stakeholders to help interpret the data and give input on the program.
One of the takeaways from the breakout session was the need for foundations to have a growth and learning culture internally before they tackle learning in public. Many individuals and foundations are taking “baby steps” towards creating learning cultures, but lack of time for learning is one chronic complaint.
What are foundations willing to STOP doing in order to make time for learning? The GEO research released at the opening plenary suggests some candidates – stop processing so many papers and stop the annual grant treadmill in favor of longer term grants. Besides creating the conditions for grantees to be more successful, making these changes just might free up time to spend on learning and reflection. What if instead of reviewing another program report and proposal for continuation funding, program staff sat together and engaged with each other about what they were learning from their portfolios? Let’s say you saved even an hour’s worth of paperwork per grant. How many hours could be freed up across the foundation?
Culture has many components – what leaders model, what stories are repeated to socialize new members, what artifacts are displayed, what gets rewarded, etc. How often do foundation CEO’s, trustees and other senior staff take time to reflect with program staff – really reflect, not review reports and performance? What if part of a program officer’s performance review was how effectively they shared what they learned, both internally and externally?
Learning in public requires program staff to feel safe – not necessarily comfortable, but safe. How to create a culture where it is safe to be in a less-than-perfect, learning and growth mode may be the first thing for foundation staff to reflect upon, even before they focus on their grantmaking work.
Teri Behrens, formerly the director of evaluation at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Foundation Review, the peer-reviewed journal of philanthropy.