Can Foundations Radically Transform How They Learn?

Let’s see (and help).

Ben Liadsky and Andrew Taylor, Taylor Newberry Consulting
Tanya Beer and Julia
Coffman, Center for Evaluation Innovation
Jane Reisman
, Social Impact Advisor

In the face of COVID-19 and the systemic racism highlighted by the police murder of George Floyd, philanthropy is looking for ways to help nonprofits respond effectively to a complex and ever-changing context. 

For many nonprofits, long-planned strategies and projects have gone by the wayside. Priorities have shifted, new needs have emerged, and old assumptions no longer hold true. Foundations and nonprofits, and even the consultants who support them, are wondering where they should stay the course and where they need to radically transform their work in both how they distribute resources and how they share power. 

Foundations and nonprofits need to learn as fast as they can how to pivot.  

Famously process-heavy and slow, foundations on the whole appear to be experimenting more, adapting and moving faster, and giving nonprofits more leeway to adjust their spending and strategies than they ever have.

Many foundations have revamped onerous bureaucratic processes into rapid-response grantmaking with few application and reporting requirements. Others have loosened spending restrictions on existing grants, offering the flexibility needed to weather the economic crisis. Internal deliberation and multi-layered approval processes have been dramatically shortened or bypassed altogether (e.g., see how Canadian philanthropy is responding). 

At the same time, notoriously accountable to no one, philanthropy is experiencing external pressure from the broader social sector at levels it has not previously experienced. Many are calling for higher annual payout rates in Canada (where it is 3.5% of total assets per year) and in the US (where it is 5%). During the pandemic, and in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, foundations are being called to account for their values and to ensure practices are aligned with them. 

Our typical approaches to learning won’t work right now.

In this context, we hear from foundation evaluation and learning staff that they are struggling to bring information to decision makers at a speed that doesn’t allow for traditional approaches to gathering data and evidence, or for slower reflection and deliberation. Some also worry about having data and evidence in the future about what happened during this period so that philanthropy can learn from it. 

For a sector that ostensibly has valued data and evaluation as a crucial element of both learning and accountability—and that has built a habit of engaging in long, deliberative planning processes and the kind of toxic intellectualizing that Vu Le describes—this could be a pivotal moment in shifting assumptions and attitudes about how learning happens, how it relates to strategic decisions, and what data we need to support that learning. It also can be an opportunity for foundations to answer calls to share power with nonprofits and enable a space for true partnership in honest and more equitable learning.

We are seeing some pivotal shifts in data use and learning.

Historically, more formal efforts to support learning within the sector follow a supply-side strategy: we focus on gathering information (e.g., through progress reports) and producing evidence (e.g., through evaluations) and then look for ways to push people and organizations to use that evidence for learning (application to decisions). 

Now, foundations are seeking to pull information into their working process when they need it, so they can make meaning together and derive some shared understanding and confidence about what to do next. 

Some evaluation and learning staff are reporting that for the first time, their program team partners are reaching out to them to bring data into their conversations because they want it to help them manage the level of uncertainty they’re facing. 

We see foundations relying more on relationships and networks for on-the-ground intelligence about what’s happening, what’s needed, and who is well-positioned to respond. Program officers are having informal check-ins with grantees and rapidly forming new, placed-based working groups to offer advice on deploying new grant dollars quickly and strategically. In a sector where peer-to-peer learning is paramount, foundations are relying heavily on their relationships with other funders, sharing what they know about the needs of their communities and which needs are or are not being met and by whom. 

The ways we support learning are shifting too.

Once we recognize learning as a social meaning making activity rather than a technical task, it becomes obvious that our ability to do it well is connected to the relationships we have both internally and externally.

When we improve relationships on a team or institutional level (often through changing routines, habits, and structural factors like lines of accountability and decision-making processes), we are seeking to create cultures that pull evidence into the places and conversations where strategists really need it. 

The focus of the learning work shifts to cultivating working relationships that can draw on evidence in order to build collective understanding. It re-centers our learning efforts and evaluation in the perspective of the “doers” of the work rather than the evaluators or data collectors. The ways nonprofit and foundation staff are working around cumbersome processes and drawing directly on relationships they have to gather intel, make sense together out of what’s happening, and decide what to do next may reveal something deeper than we’ve understood before about the conditions that are necessary for social meaning making.

We don’t know yet what difference these changes will make.

We don’t yet know whether these new ways of working actually will contribute to a more effective crisis response, let alone better outcomes for people and communities, or whether they are signaling a return to more responsive philanthropy or something else. Because of the difficulty of data collection in this environment, we may never confidently draw that conclusion with conventional forms of evaluation. 

At the same time, nonprofits and other sector critics already are questioning why these low-burden, relationship-based practices that preserve generous space for learning and adaptation haven’t been the norm all along. And we suspect there will be strong resistance to reverting to old practices after this time of deep uncertainty has ended, both from nonprofits and foundation staff. 

We need to use this time to experiment and then examine what shifts should remain.

If we’re unlikely to return fully to the previous ways of working, how might we use this experience to understand something new about the organizational and sector conditions that are necessary to make learning and adaptation possible and in service to equity?  

We are exploring this question in various aspects of our work.

Taylor Newberry Consulting and the Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) are researching what foundations in Canada and the U.S. are experiencing and doing in the face of the crises, regardless of whether they have defined their efforts within a learning frame.

Through the Lab for Learning, CEI and Jane Reisman, PhD are working with learning leaders from 16 foundations to experiment with and test ideas about how to ensure learning practices are equitable and how to use learning as a mechanism for advancing racial equity.

Across our work, we want to know:

  1. What are the consequences—intended and unintended—of changes in how learning happens in philanthropy, and what does that tell us about which changes need to sustain and to, ultimately, build community power? (not all changes will be for the better or lead to more equitable practices or outcomes)
  2. How are specific practices in sharing power, building trust, having open and honest conversations, and developing shared understanding changing foundation thinking and opening up a deeper kind of collective learning?
  3. As philanthropy grapples with its role regarding social inequality and structural racism, how are foundations learning equitably, with and from affected communities, and how is that changing their approaches and assumptions?

Join us in helping philanthropy learn how to radically transform.

For foundations, this is a significant time to break free of longtime, inequitable patterns and to learn deeply about how foundations operate as well as their place in society. For evaluation and learning staff in foundations, and the consultants who work with them, our role right now is to examine what happens when we radically transform our ways of working, so that we can retain and build new routines around what better and more equitably aligns our learning with action.

The research described above is being supported by the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund. The Lab for Learning is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Laudes Foundation.

Taylor Newberry Consulting is based in Canada and works to support evaluation and learning, strategy, and organizational capacity with foundations and nonprofits. Andrew Taylor is principal consultant, and Ben Liadsky is research consultant.

Center for Evaluation Innovation is a nonprofit based in the U.S. that works to advance evaluation and learning practice in philanthropy. Julia Coffman is director and Tanya Beer is associate director.

Jane Reisman, Ph.D., advises on social impact by drawing on three decades of leadership at the intersection of strategy and evaluation. She also continues to collaborate with ORS Impact, the strategy and evaluation firm she founded in 1989 and led for more than 25 years.