Can Organized Philanthropy Learn To Learn?
Since posting Is There A Role For Philanthropy In Renewing Democracy a month ago, several colleagues have suggested that organized philanthropy (i.e., foundations and funds) need to get their own houses in order before they worry about such issues as renewing democracy. In fact, one writer suggested that I write about what democracy can do to renew philanthropy!
Coincidentally, Learning in Philanthropy: A Guidebook, crossed my desk. Published by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), this practical handbook posits that in order for foundations to make lasting progress toward the goals that they share with their nonprofit partners and communities, they need to be learning all the time, discovering what is happening in their communities and how change is affecting the ability of nonprofit organizations to do their work and reach their own goals.
GEO is comprised of over 7,000 grant-makers who have banded together to lift up grant-making practices that will improve philanthropy. This guidebook is based on feedback and suggestions from many of them, and it has the backing of a number of major foundations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Kresge Foundation.
Learning in Philanthropy attempts to answer the following questions:
- What’s the best way to set up the learning function in our organization?
- How can we get our staff and board engaged in and excited about learning?
- How can we learn with communities and nonprofits?
- How can we do a better job connecting learning and evaluation to strategy?
- What are the best ways to share learning with others so it drives real awareness and action?
- How can we support staff, board and others to learn?
Recognizing that learning and evaluation are “about improvement, not just proof,” GEO adopts the following definition of “strategic learning”:
- Strategic learning occurs when organizations or groups use evaluation and evaluative thinking to learn in real time and adapt their strategies to the changing circumstances around them. Strategic learning makes evaluation a part of a strategy’s development and implementation – embedding it so that it influences the process.
Like the challenges surrounding democracy, many of the deep-seated problems that grant-makers and nonprofit organizations have tried to solve over the years have proven difficult to impact. For GEO, this suggests that it’s time for foundations to consider new and improved ways of working, and new and improved strategies for tackling tough social problems.
Strategic learning, and implementing the suggestions contained in this guide, should help grant-makers and nonprofit organizations work smarter and get better results. Learning to learn should also help grant-makers and their partners renew their priorities and programs, and provide more meaningful and impactful support of causes and communities.
Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.
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CSR Now! Is a weekly blog by Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation, designed to get at what's happening in corporate social responsibility today -- from the point of view of a corporate practitioner.