Learning in responsive grant making – Thinking out loud

Learning in responsive grant making – Thinking out loud

February 2017

Houda Davis


‘Good learning’ – useful, thorough and relevant – can help make responsive grant making a reality. In the run up to IVAR’s 2017 Evaluation Roundtable we have been looking into theory and ideas that might help us figure out just what good learning looks like.

One of these ideas is the ‘learning organisation’. This is essentially an organisation which actively creates opportunities for knowledge and intelligence to shape day-to-day practices and future direction, and embeds learning within its culture (IVAR 2015).

The idea was big in the 90s and early 2000s. It was taken into many different disciplines and sectors which means it’s hard to find a single definition or method.[i] But there is consensus that what really distinguishes a learning organisation is where acquired knowledge, skills and experience translate into changes to the way organisations achieve their goals.

The literature on learning organisations is very much focussed on for profit-organisations which means it’s hard to apply lessons directly to the grant making sector. More recent literature specifically focussed on philanthropy from the US has moved away from the idea of the learning organisation and refers almost exclusively to strategic learning – the use of data and insights to influence decision making about strategy. Linked to strategic learning, is the idea of emergent learning, which helps people turn learning into practice by focussing on the work habits and practices that help or hinder learning.

While the literature does not give us a definitive answer as to what good learning looks like in responsive grant making, it does outline some basic building blocks which help turn learning into action:

  • Culture – Good learning requires an enabling culture – a set of values and behaviours – which promote enquiry, reflection and dialogue.
  • Leadership – an enabling culture is very much linked to leadership, since leaders play a key role in establishing cultures which support learning, remove barriers, empower staff and demonstrate positive behaviour.
  • Systems and processes – Includes anything from databases to team meetings, to capture, use and share learning are also essential.

Between now and the 2017 Roundtable in May, we’ll continue to mine the literature for ideas and we’ll also be conducting a survey of trust’s and foundation’s evaluation practice and creating an in depth teaching case to further explore these issues.

[1] For a useful overview see http://infed.org/mobi/the-learning-organization/

Click here for more information on the Evaluation Roundtable.

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