The interest in learning has manifested in different ways — from “learning officer” type positions, to innovative structures and processes, and different ways of thinking about reporting results. However, these are still largely “inputs” that support learning, rather than “outputs” that show that learning has happened.
So how does one know that learning has, in fact, happened?
Learning is Action
At a wedding I attended several years ago, the pastor delivered a speech titled “love is action.” She made the point to the newlyweds that no matter how much they might say they loved their partner, it would ring hollow without action that showed the same. The pastor asked, “What are you willing to change about yourself? What behaviors are you willing to engage in that go beyond your comfort zone, but would be responsive to your partner’s needs?”
Taking a cue from the pastor, I would contend that the only way to truly know if learning has happened is if something has changed. For example, learning could result in:
- a tweak in strategy or approach;
- bringing new grantees or partners into the mix; or a
- change in programmatic focus, including entry into new areas and exit from old areas.
This raises the question whether every new learning requires an action. The answer is no, as there is still need for strong judgment to determine whether and when action is warranted. In the context of board-approved, long-term strategies, we don’t want to be “lurching” from one path to another. However, informed inaction is very different from blindly sticking to the status quo. There is still a clear choice that is being made not to act.
How Learning Happens at Democracy Fund
At Democracy Fund, we recognize the value of learning to our organization. Given the nature of the complex, intractable problems we are trying to solve, ongoing learning and adaptation remain our surest bets for creating the impact we care about. To this end, we are putting together a “learning architecture,” that includes different structures, processes, and systems to make learning actionable at multiple levels:
- Internal: Through ongoing program evaluations, learning labs, and portfolio reviews, we will engage our staff not just in “What” we are learning, but the “So What” and “Now What” steps coming out of it for our strategy.
- Board: Through an annual learning and progress report to our board, as well as a deeper board learning conversation that happens for each initiative every 18–24 months, each team will provide a snapshot of lessons learned that either confirm or contradict initial hypotheses and the implications of these lessons going forward.
- External: This remains the least developed part of our learning architecture at the moment, but our goal is to have a robust set of products that share our lessons and implications with grantees, partners, and the broader field. We also hope to build a community of fellow learners along the way.
We fully expect this to be a work in progress over the next one to two years, but our goal is to make actionable learning an integral part of the way we do business, in service to what we ultimate care about — a strong and resilient American democracy.