What Will it Take for Philanthropy to Learn?

In collaboration with evaluation and learning leaders in fourteen foundations, we experimented with how to integrate learning into the way philanthropy works. Our “Lab for Learning” revealed ideas about what it takes.

By: Jane Reisman, Julia Coffman, Tanya Beer, Aparna Rae, and Haley Millet

Philanthropy lately has been paying a lot of attention to “learning.” This interest in improving strategic learning in philanthropy remains strong as foundations, for the most part, still have not cracked the code on mastering it. But their interest in learning is now about more than just improving their own strategic decisions.

What does it take for foundations to be dynamic learning systems?

Learning leaders from fourteen foundations participated in a year-long “Lab for Learning” to experiment with and test ideas for supporting learning in foundations. Several “ground truths” about learning in philanthropy guided this work.

  1. Learning requires a transformation in how foundations work, not just what they know. To make this concrete, we identified five habits that we think are essential to high-quality learning.
  2. Organizational systems acutely affect our ability to learn. We have to think about the personal, social, and structural dynamics that get in the way of (or reinforce) our effective collection and use of information.
  3. Learning habits are best introduced into regular work routines, often implicitly.

Through a facilitated process and an intent to benefit both participating foundations and the broader field, Lab participants had the opportunity to experiment with, learn from, and adapt their approaches to supporting learning, with the additional benefit of rich inputs from a curated group of peers. Participants developed action-research-style experiments that attempted to integrate learning into their foundation settings and processes.