What it takes to learn during crises: Reflections

Ben Liadsky and Andrew Taylor, Taylor Newberry Consulting
Julia Coffman and Albertina Lopez, Center for Evaluation Innovation

In this blog post, Albertina Lopez, Julia Coffman, Ben Liadsky, and Andrew Taylor reflect on how learning showed up in interviews with leaders from seven foundations and offer some thoughts on what the philanthropic sector still needs to pay attention to going forward. This blog post follows up our recent publication: Approaches to Learning Amid Crises: Reflections from Philanthropy.

What are some examples of organizational learning that stood out most for you during your conversations with interviewees?

Ben: One criteria of a strong learning organization is that staff see themselves as learners and that learning is a core part of their day-to-day work. The number of times that interviewees told us that they regularly looked to gather information in new ways and often from different places not only reflects the uncertainty of the time, but also the recognition that foundations can’t get answers to complicated questions on their own. Whether reaching out to grantees, other funders, or intermediaries, there was a hunger for more information that manifested itself very differently than in pre-crisis times. Maybe it was the speed at which things were happening, but I’m struck by how many of our interviewees who already have what I would describe as strong-ish relationships with their grant recipients did even more to reach out, listen, and learn in a proactive manner.

Andrew: That’s true. Many of the foundations we spoke with scaled back their more structured, accountability-focused data gathering practices in response to the events of 2020. What struck me as I listened to the stories, however, is that they didn’t simply stop gathering data. They redirected their energy towards more nimble, open-ended, collaborative and relationship-driven approaches to learning and adaptation. They leaned into learning.  

Power is an ever-present theme in philanthropy. How did you see power show up in the foundations you spoke with?

Albertina: Power sharing is required for meaningful, rapid learning. Foundations are powerful—they are the arbiters of resources that change-making organizations need to do the on-the-ground work, and foundations can influence what issues an entire community system pays attention to. What stuck out for me in the learning examples was that foundations who decentralized decision making power about who to give money to, for what, over how long, and how much, put relevant learning in the hands of the learners. The Headwaters Foundation, for example, gave power to grantees to decide how to pivot their existing grant agreements. The grantees heard their communities and implemented solutions based on what they needed.

Obviously there’s been a fair bit of thinking and sharing over the past year on how things have changed. How do you think the issues that emerged from the conversations you had with interviewees reflect what is happening more broadly in the philanthropic sector?

Julia: The huge philanthropic response to the call-to-action issued by the Council on Foundations at the start of the pandemic and the follow-on Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) study about shifts in philanthropic practices since the pandemic began both align with what we saw here–foundations are shifting what they are asking of grantees and how they are learning with and from them. On its surface, the increased focus on philanthropic learning in different ways and using different sources feels more relational and collaborative. It signals that foundations recognize that they do not have the ability on their own to fully predict and control either contextual or social change.

Ben: Agreed. Similarly in Canada, a few philanthropic intermediaries collectively put out a statement of principles and Philanthropic Foundations Canada hosted regular COVID-related webinars to encourage more conversations and sharing of how to cope, adapt, and learn. The response to these initiatives I think highlights a recognition for many foundations that they are not fully in control and a desire to learn from others about different approaches to doing the work. 

Going forward, where do you see a continued need for attention as it concerns creating a sector that is more oriented toward learning?

Albertina: Thinking again to power, I think about the learning habits through an equity lens, including what bounds the space in which they are practiced. When we make our thinking visible, whose thinking matters more in the room and what are the implications of that? When we ask powerful questions, who gets to be invited to ask them or to decide which ones we answer? When we combat our biases, which biases do we check for and how do we handle the mitigation of them? When we attend to causal inference, how can the foundation be held accountable for how it affects the system it’s intertwined with? When we answer the “now what” question, whose interests are being included or prioritized? We need to dig into the complexity of the relationships among learning, power, and equity so we can adapt in future crises in a way that respects and supports harmed communities and, ultimately, moves closer to the just world we want to see.

Ben: One element that I would say still needs attention is that of transparency and adaptability in engaging with grantees. Every foundation we spoke to very quickly put out public statements and emailed their grantees to let them know of their plans once COVID-19 shuttered much of the world. Yet, we also heard that there is some tension around giving up some control as it relates to removing restrictions on how grant dollars are used or what reporting requirements look like over the long term. While these are exceptional times and the foundations we spoke to were emphatic about this not being the time to have a lot of restrictions in place, it is still true that in more normal times, foundation strategies and programs can and do change. Yet, how often when those changes to strategy or programs occur is it clear why those changes were made, who was consulted, and to what end?

Julia: Going forward, my question is what about these more democratic ways of learning will stick. We know from Donella Meadows and her work on system levers that new learning routines and processes (infrastructure) can go a ways toward changing a foundation system, but that sustained change requires power, leadership practice, and paradigmatic shifts. We don’t know yet whether foundations will treat this period as a temporary departure from business-as-usual, or whether they will see it as the beginning of a new normal. My hope is for that latter, and that more democratic ways of learning ultimately align with more democratic ways of developing strategy, working with partners, and engaging generally in the complex work of social change.

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