Approaches to Learning Amid Crises: Reflections from Philanthropy

Published: April 2021

Type: Publication

We were interested in understanding how foundations’ approaches to learning shaped their responses to the crises of 2020.   

Ben Liadsky
Andrew Taylor
Julia Coffman, Headshot
Tanya Beer
Albertina Lopez

2020 sparked an urgency for foundations to work equitably and adapt quickly, while also reflecting deeply on their roles in society and the alignment between their operations and values. The COVID-19 pandemic and murder of George Floyd have brought to the forefront the long-held assumptions about how foundations should work and be held accountable. Many foundations began to explore significant changes to their practices. Along the way, they were forced to learn, reflect, and adapt in unprecedented ways.

Given that both our organizations–Taylor Newberry Consulting and Center for Evaluation Innovation–have written about the relationships among organizational learning, evaluation, and change, we were especially interested in understanding how foundations’ approaches to learning shaped their responses to the crises of 2020.

We wanted to know whether developing an organizational learning culture yielded benefits in terms of  stronger and more adaptive decision-making.

In interviews with seven foundations from Canada and the U.S. in the summer and fall of 2020, we spent time applying the lens of organizational learning to how each of these foundations made sense of their reality, asked different kinds of questions to inform their thinking, and acted in new or different ways as a result.

It’s hard to describe the year that was for philanthropy when so many of its challenges persist. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected millions and, as more time has passed, has further highlighted how unequal its effects have been on different communities. Similarly, the protests and campaigns calling out systemic racism that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 continue to reverberate.

Much has already been written and said about how philanthropy has responded or adapted to these realities. There have been many insights and examples focused on the actions of various philanthropic foundations as well as interesting discussions at a sector level on important issues such as diversity, equity, and inclusion and disbursement rates among others. We see our work as being complementary to these efforts.

Our intent is to support philanthropy in learning from doing while changes are still underway. We lift up examples of how foundations have reacted and specifically what and how they are learning.

We also share our own reflections on this work post-interviews in our blog post: What it Takes to Learn During Crises: Reflections