Learning to Learn: Four Takeaways from GEO’s 2017 Learning Conference

Jennifer Glickman

It isn’t very often you get to spend two days dedicated solely to learning, reflecting on the learning practices at your own institution, and also hearing about the learning practices of others. But that’s exactly what the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Learning Conference is all about. Every other year, GEO brings together like-minded peers to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of philanthropic learning and improvement.

This year, I had the privilege of participating in these discussions and, in keeping with the conference’s theme and purpose, I’ve spent the past several weeks since the conference reflecting on a few key learnings that resonated in particular with me.

1. The field of philanthropy is dedicated to evaluation and learning, and individuals and institutions are already doing many things well.

One of the first things we did at the conference was discuss our individual learning strengths in small groups — what are we and our respective organizations doing well? My table was fired up to talk about the curiosity that exists among their colleagues. From informal conversations with nonprofits on the ground and the communities they serve, to formal quarterly evaluations of progress and impact, foundations are excited to engage with, synthesize, and reflect on their work. While recognizing that sometimes these things can be more aspirational than practical, we discussed the need to be open to various perspectives and viewpoints — and to communicate and share those perspectives more widely. There’s an appetite for this type of learning, and many foundation staff want to get out there and do it.

2. But, as with most things, there are challenges to being able to learn as effectively as possible.

My table discussed how, oftentimes, actually finding the time and resources necessary to dedicate to meaningful learning can end up inhibiting the process entirely. It can also be difficult to identify and articulate the purposes behind a certain evaluation or learning venture, and then match methods to fit those purposes. Some individuals felt that with little accountability to regularly measure progress against goals, foundations can end up lowering the priority of these practices. Additionally, determining how to actually use and disseminate knowledge once it is obtained — to serve the needs of both foundations and the grantees with which they work — can pose a challenge.

3. As a result, learning can’t happen in silos and requires authentic engagement.

Throughout the rest of the conference, it became clear that one way to tackle these challenges is through authentic engagement — and in particular, engagement with grantees and beneficiaries. Presenters and participants at various breakout sessions and short talks discussed, either as a main topic or as a piece of another topic, the need to incorporate those whom foundations are ultimately seeking to serve into foundations’ learning processes.

At one session specifically focused on beneficiaries, we discussed the need to go beyond simply gathering feedback from community members, and actually invite them to the table to find solutions.  This “invitation” was meant quite literally — we talked about the benefits of having community boards and/or hosting community forums that show people they actually have the ability to influence outcomes. Foundations don’t have to, and shouldn’t, do this alone. They can work together with grantee organizations to hear from and engage with those whom they are serving. Participants at the session discussed ways to support grantees in hearing from their clients and brainstormed how to use the information obtained.

Further, at another session about nonprofit learning capacity, we went deeper into discussing the importance of building strong, open relationships with grantees in order to obtain and use knowledge. The participants at my table all agreed that this type of relationship is crucial for foundations and grantees to effectively learn together and achieve their joint goals. If grantees live in fear of repercussions for “failures,” then they will be less willing to share what they have learned about what is and isn’t working. By proxy, foundations will then know less about what is and isn’t working in their endeavors, as well.

4. In order to learn more fully, the philanthropic field needs to collectively focus more on asset-framing.

In a 25-minute “short talk” presentation, Trabian Shorters, CEO at BMe Community, shared the detrimental effects that a deficit mindset can have on learning and, ultimately, on the overall goals foundations are attempting to achieve. Trabian began his talk by discussing the science behind learning, illustrating how our minds are prone to disregard facts that do not fit with our own preconceived narratives. In other words, when we construct narratives around deficits — e.g., defining populations only as “at-risk” or “vulnerable” — our brains are hardwired to focus on and process facts that are in line with those deficits. As a result, we end up not being driven by and learning from data so much as we are being driven by and learning from negative data. And we miss the fuller picture. To learn to our greatest capacity, we must not define groups solely by their challenges and instead encourage a more positive, asset-based narrative.

These insights are only a few of many that I took away from GEO’s Learning Conference last month. Like many of my peers who attended, I remain committed to keeping up the energy and momentum produced by the conference and continuing to apply these takeaways to my work.

Jennifer Glickman is manager, research, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @JenGlickman.

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