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. Yesterday, I participated on a session called “Learning in Public” with Kathy Reich, Packard Foundation and Jared Raynor, TCC Group. The session was about transparency and conducting evaluations. One of the takeaways was that in order to pursue this type of learning, organizational culture was the key indicator to success. Peter’s post shares some ideas about cultivating a learning culture and while written for funders, these are applicable to nonprofits.
What have you learned, Dorothy? – Guest post by Peter Laugharn
Glinda the Good Witch: “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas. ”
Dorothy: “I have? ”
Scarecrow: “Then why didn’t you tell her before? ”
Glinda: “Because she wouldn’t have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.”
Tin Man: “What have you learned, Dorothy?”
The Wizard of Oz (next-to-last scene)
I often think of the above exchange when foundations talk about learning. Especially the last sentence. What have you learned?
Because the truth is, it’s a lot easier to declare that one wants to have a “learning organization” than to actually do it. We are all pro-learning, and there’s little obvious downside risk in signaling that we want to be known for it. It also sounds less costly and complicated than evaluation.
I’m here at the 2012 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference in Seattle – which is aptly nicknamed “The Emerald City.” Participants at this conference are talking about a “paradigm shift” from evaluation to learning. As FSG’s Valerie Bockstette mentioned in her Strategic Evaluation Blog this morning, the GEO program lists “learning” 42 times, “evaluation” 33 times, and “proof” only 3 times.
But I sense in conversations here at the conference that participants are clearer in their minds about the practice of evaluation than they are about the practice of learning. With that in mind, I wanted to set out six queries that might help foundations orient, anchor, and structure their learning, and better use its fruits.
1. Do we know what we want to learn? I’d argue that if we don’t spell out guiding questions, or better yet working hypotheses that build on our experience but are still ‘out there’, we’ll have a hard time showing what we learn over time. Look at this as our yellow brick road (OK, you could also call it our “theory of change”)
2. Have we decided who ‘we’ is? Is the learning pursued by the foundation team itself, or by the foundation and its grantees, or in some combination with researchers? Is Dorothy working solo, or are the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion also part of the team? Not to mention the Munchkins and the flying monkeys.
3. Have we thought about what we might need in order to get there? The staples of Oz – courage, heart, and brains – are a good start. These typically translate into leadership, passion and culture, and analytical capacity and systems. In my experience, leadership, especially from the Executive Director and the Program Director, is necessary but not sufficient. A harder step is culture, since a thriving learning organization needs personalities that are hard-wired for curiosity and analysis, which are often not the qualities a staff has been hired for. What’s the long-term plan for getting curious folks onto the team? And the development of systems is a challenge, since learning, even when objectives are well-defined, is an organic process. It doesn’t lend itself entirely to workplans, databases, and deliverable deadlines.
4. How will we know when our learning is good enough? This is a really important point to agree on. Foundation staff may have strong and conflicting points of view, and may not have a process or skill in validating ideas, to raise them from individual’s idea to one the whole group can work with and share. This process of going from individual’s insight to group’s ‘knowledge asset’ is a critical one. An excellent resource on the topic of Knowledge Assets is Geoff Parcell and Chris Collisons’ Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations.
5. What will we do with the learning when we have it? At the very least we should try to improve the quality of our own work, or the capacity of the organizations we fund. But there is also tremendous value in sharing learning with others, in leveraging our knowledge to make greater change than our grants can “buy.” The challenge here is that program staff who have been steeped in learning often have a hard time telling their story simply, in ways that attract attention. The issue here is the move from internal knowledge asset to external takeaway, distilling complexities down to essentials without losing the core of the learning. Dorothy awakens from her dream, and can’t convince the loving Kansans around her that she’s actually been on a meaningful journey – how do we avoid this fate?
6. What have we learned? The Scarecrow’s question to Dorothy should be our mantra – all those engaged on this journey should ask it continually, and be able to answer it confidently, in terms of fresh insights, new data, and deeper connections. This is what will ultimately convince others that it was a worthwhile journey.
If we keep asking ourselves these questions, and keep track of how our answers grow and change over time, we just might make it back to Kansas – with a much more profound understanding of how things work, and how to make them work better.
Peter Laugharn, Firelight Foundation executive director. Solution seeker. Helping African communities change their children’s lives.