How’s My Driving? The Value of Learning from Peers

Jeff Sunshine

Learning and knowledge sharing are important topics in philanthropy. By adopting a learning orientation and exchanging knowledge with others, grantmakers can better position themselves to address the complex problems they’re working to solve today.

Learning itself, however, is a broad concept that can take myriad forms. As grantmakers we learn by attending conferences, summits, convenings, and trainings with those in our field or adjacent fields. We learn by listening to grantees, constituents, and beneficiaries on site visits, and by being in the community. We also learn by talking informally with colleagues about our work. Indeed, there is no shortage of learning opportunities in today’s social sector.

Turning to Our Peers

Recently at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we had the opportunity to learn from our peer funders within one of our key areas of work, Starting Smart and Strong. Starting Smart and Strong is a ten-year, place-based effort that strives to ensure that all children grow up healthy and ready for kindergarten by improving the quality of adult-child interactions across all settings where young children learn and grow. We are partnering with three California communities—Fresno, Oakland, and the Franklin-McKinley School District in East San Jose—to test and scale solutions that support parents, caregivers, and educators, and establish proof points that can inform early learning policy and catalyze broader systems change.

As we approached the midpoint of the strategy in 2019, it seemed an opportune moment to step back and reflect on the work. In addition to having conversations with our grantees, intermediary partners, evaluators, and Foundation trustees, we were also interested in hearing from other funders either located in or funding work in these same communities. We hoped that through this process of engaging other funders we could gain feedback on issues beyond our focus areas that could impact our grantees’ work developing systems.

Gathering Candid Feedback

In philanthropy, candid feedback is crucial to making sure our work is having the impact we seek. Gathering this type of feedback from other funders in a formal way was a new experience for us, and because we wanted candid feedback, we engaged a third-party evaluation partner to conduct confidential interviews with 11 funders supporting early learning efforts across three communities.

Through the interviews conducted, we were able to:

  • Gain a valuable outside perspective on the progress of grantees’ work. Funders across the three communities agreed that the quality and strength of communities’ early learning systems have improved since the beginning of our initiative. Funders most consistently noted that compared to five years ago there is more collaboration among early learning service providers and that communities are more intentionally collecting and using data to inform their work and decisions.
  • Confirm opportunities and barriers, and highlight solutions for making further progress. Funders highlighted areas for improvement, such as strengthening governance and infrastructure. Funders noted that while funding is needed to catalyze and spread innovative practices and collaboration, more basic needs (such as pay for teachers and capital improvements to classrooms) should be funded first.
  • Generate ideas about how we can further support grantees’ work in the long-term. The funders interviewed shared what they’ve learned through their own grantmaking as well as their perspectives on what funders might do better to support the development, spread, and sustainability of high-quality early childhood programs and services.
  • Identify potential opportunities to collaborate and coordinate with other funders and the public sector. Funders agreed that collaboration with each other is the most effective way to maximize impact on young children and their families. Funders also acknowledged that philanthropy alone cannot sustain change and that collaboration with and support from the public sector is crucial to supporting scale and sustainability.

While we often learn alongside our colleagues in philanthropy, we rarely have an opportunity to gain the perspectives of those making similar investments in place-based, systems-building initiatives. The feedback we received from these peer funders has already proved to be valuable: their reflections have helped us to understand the impact of our work building systems, and better grasp what it takes to catalyze additional philanthropic investments in these highly collaborative efforts. Not only are we learning about other systems change efforts that can deepen our knowledge base, but we are also forging new relationships which may prove helpful in sustaining community change over time. We look forward to engaging our funder colleagues again as our program continues to unfold, and plan to share our experiences more broadly with our colleagues across the Packard Foundation and beyond.

Jeff Sunshine is a Program Officer and Manager at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Children, Families, and Communities Program.

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