Across philanthropy, organizations are putting greater emphasis on learning, recognizing the importance of rigorous inquiry to improve our impact. Growing from a commitment to evaluation, the trend has now extended beyond it. We now recognize that it takes a facilitative organizational culture, tools and processes – and not just data – to learn. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent Foundation Evaluation Benchmarking Survey shows that foundations are increasingly dedicating attention to – and hiring staff for –these aspects of organizational learning.
A community of foundation learning officers, like myself, is emerging as a result. We work internally to foster a culture of adaptation and learning. We provide our busy colleagues with venues for learning, tools and practices for reflection, and we encourage their curiosity.
As the community of learning staff finds its footing together, we should be conscious and intentional about how much we have to learn from the colleagues we support. My Democracy Fund peers frequently remind me about the importance of asking not only what our organization should be learning, but to also ask how we can support the learning objectives of our grantees, partners and the wider field. By now, it is common wisdom that foundations learn through and with our grantees – but it is our program staff who live out this wisdom every day.
Recently, I shared with my colleagues a tip sheet for how to build a reflective practice into our staff check-ins. Though I’d envisioned this as an internal resource, my enthusiastic colleagues asked to share these lessons with their grantees. With their help, I am coming to see that my objective as Manager of Learning and Strategy should not simply be for Democracy Fund to actively learn, but to ensure that our grantees and partners have the resources and support to do so as well. Democracy Fund will learn best when we are part of a cohort of robust learning organizations.
Over time, our team hopes to help strengthen learning skills among our grantees, as well as our colleagues. We plan to deliver trainings in monitoring, evaluation, and learning, to provide resources that support these capacities, and to encourage Democracy Fund to be even more participatory and transparent in our monitoring, evaluation and learning activities.
In that spirit, I’m listening to my colleagues. Here, for your use as well as ours, are the five tips for making meetings more learning-oriented, mentioned above. I hope you find value in them – do reach out with your stories!
1. Make Dedicated Space for Learning
Often, there’s no need to create new venues for learning. Consider looking for opportunities to build learning into existing meetings and structures. Team check-ins are an ideal setting, since they are regular, informal, and action-oriented. Consider carving out 20 minutes of an existing check-in for this purpose, or extending a meeting to make time. If you find yourself adding meetings to the schedule for learning, make sure your objectives are specific and explicit. Consider how other agenda items might condition mindsets and participants’ degree of comfort for learning (see Bonus Tip!).
2. Put Learning First
When looking to build your financial savings, experts advise putting aside the first chunk of your paycheck, rather than whatever’s left over at the end of the month. The same applies to learning. The last agenda item often gets cut – so to make sure learning activities occur, put them first on your meeting agenda. Starting off with a learning activity might also help shift the tone of the rest of your meeting, making it more reflection-oriented.
3. Keep it Structured – AND Keep it ENGAGING
Simply asking “what are we learning?” rarely leads to a productive conversation. A light structure helps enhance the conversation and ensure everyone has a chance to be heard. Check out FSG’s guide to Facilitating Intentional Group Learning for ideas – including many activities that can be done in about 20 minutes!
Routine can help build our learning muscles, and over time can lead to reflection becoming part of the culture. Find a tool that works for your team and stick with it for a while. Still, make sure the tool doesn’t become stale – switching things up can keep it engaging.
4. Make It Useful
Reflection for its own sake is worthwhile, but it becomes learning when we apply it to our work. In too many instances, valuable lessons are lost because they never become actionable. Every learning activity should keep an eye on how to the data collected or lessons learned will be useful in the future. Ask “when will we apply what we’ve learned?” and “How will we change our behavior in the future?” Make things concrete, and ensure someone is tasked with carrying the lesson forward into future work. Jot down notes, and circle back on do-outs at future meetings.
5. Model Curiosity
Learning is everyone’s job. All of us can model learning behavior that is hungry for evidence, encourages feedback, and welcomes a diversity of views, to foster a supportive learning environment. While it’s important to have someone structure and guide learning activities, participating in them is everyone’s responsibility – and a learning culture is most vibrant when everyone actively engages. Everyone can enter learning activities curious, and welcoming of the curiosity of others.
6. BONUS TIP — (ESPECIALLY FOR MANAGERS): Watch for Power Pitfalls
By being conscious of how power dynamics and other stressors can affect learning spaces, you can create opportunities for each team member to share their input. Consider implementing explicit norms on open communication, assigning agenda items to different team members, or creating activities in which each member of the team is explicitly invited to speak up.
Many thanks to Anna Chukhno, Democracy Fund’s Strategy, Impact and Learning Intern, for her support on this project.