What does ‘learning’ mean for UK Trusts and Foundations?

What is it like to hear how others perceive your approach to learning? Pears Foundation and Corra Foundation have kindly agreed for us to publish the reflections they shared at the January 2019 convening of the UK Evaluation roundtable – where discussions were centred around detailed case studies of their distinct approaches to learning. We are also publishing the closing remarks from Tanya Beer and Ben Cairns, who facilitated the convening.   

You can read the full teaching cases here, along with our notes on how to use them to support reflection and learning in your own organisation. 

Pears Foundation – Bridget McGing

It says in the case we like to seek out different and external sources of information – and today has been a great example. Sharing our approach has been a privilege and has stimulated a lot of thoughts. From today’s discussion and preparing the case, I have thought a lot about the idea of relational grant-making and suggestions that this is the ‘next trend’, following on the heels of place-based funding.

Given our sector’s tendency to pendulum swing from one trend to another, I would like to sound a note of caution from the vantage point of a foundation that does a lot of relational grant-making: there isn’t one simple answer. Everything we do is through relationships, but there is also accountability, triangulation, due diligence and accounts. Relationships support all of that, but things still need to be interrogated, sense-checked, and for us this is done very intentionally.

Yes, relationships have filters, prejudices, biases – but so do all grant decisions. The best you can do is bring your experience, knowledge and sensitivity to the process.

Relational grant-making isn’t for every trust or foundation. Your grant managers may be hugely skilled, but if there isn’t trust from senior leadership and boards in grant-managers then you really have to ask yourself if it’s the right format for you. Long-term, this applies as much to grantees as it does to staff: trusted relationships with grantees take time to build.

I’m very struck by the comparison between Pears and Corra foundations. We both intentionally set aside time for learning with and for our grantees – but when offered in a non-mandatory form this is often not taken up whatever the incentive. Sometimes you have to take a stick, paint it orange and pretend it’s a carrot!

At the start of the day, we were asked to think of something we planned in five years, and we were all surprised at what we felt: a mix of warmth at the idea of reaching our imagined milestones, and fear that we wouldn’t achieve them. When we don’t achieve something, we learn from the experience – and a great bit of learning can be really satisfying! So we need to inject joy and enjoyment into learning.

Corra Foundation – Elaine Wilson

I’d like to start by thanking Liz Firth for the questions she posed that helped to shape our teaching case. Her first question to us was ‘what is learning?’ – it’s everything and nothing, it has to be meaningful. We recognise that it’s not that stuff that gathers dust on the shelf. How do we continue to think about what learning is, and about how we use it internally and externally? How do we try and make it not feel mandatory?

When my post – Head of Learning and Development – was created, I had to make the staff team feel that the data and insights they have is learning, which is often harder than it seems. We had to take things bit by bit. Take the time to read and acknowledge learning, to make people feel connected and valued – and we need continually to make time to do that.

We want the time and space for reflection, but once a learning system is in place this is often the last thing on your mind – how do you make learning feel continually meaningful? It’s a long journey, but we’ve made a lot of progress. And learning is one part of a bigger picture – a logic model that sits alongside other things. We have KPIs that are very internal, and trustees have been clear that they don’t want to measure us against the numbers, but rather reflect on them: have we selected the right measures? Do we need to change them? Do they reflect what we are trying to achieve as an organisation? They are asking why, not what.

Corra Foundation – Carolyn Sawers

There are three lessons that I feel we should action from the conversation today:

  1. Learning is about understanding, and making meaning. So you need to keep going until you do understand. I’m struck by how complex the areas of social change we are all working in are – we need to keep going until we understand the context we are operating in. That requires investment in skills and capability and analysis – as much investment as we put into systems and data.
  2. A change mindset. This is unexpressed at the moment in our organisation as a condition for success, and we might benefit from surfacing that more. We need to pay more attention to people’s motivations.
  3. Learning feels challenging. It is rare that learning or change doesn’t fundamentally challenge your sense of certainty or sense of value/organisational value. I’d like to reflect after today, and in particular after hearing the Pears case, on our commitment – as an employer, a partner and a funder – to our learning and the support we offer others to learn.

Center for Evaluation Innovation – Tanya Beer; IVAR – Ben Cairns

The field has come a long way over the period that we have been trying to think about it in a very concerted, reflective way. An overarching message back  in 2014 was that learning and evaluation still struggle for air time. There were real questions then around the status of learning and learners – in particular, people felt frustrated about the lack of attention boards pay to it.

Keeping going is terribly important. We have kept going to some positive benefit. Five years on, we are in a different place. The last roundtable theme was ‘what it means to be a learning organisation’ – and we’ve now drilled down into questions of practice. Making learning everyday is not a contested concept but the practice of learning really needs to be grappled with.

It’s called a learning practice for a reason. It’s an action, not a thing and it needs to be rehearsed, practised again and again – a noun, a thing that gets passed around. How we make learning, how we do it, matters. And we all need to learn our way into learning. It’s the kind of thing where you need to give yourselves space to experiment, try things, see what doesn’t work – drop it – take what works and move that further, as you cultivate your learning muscle.  Sometimes people feel exhausted by the expanse of what they’re trying to do. Which is why it’s so important to give yourself the space to be learners as you go.

You may also be interested in:

Learning from the Pears #iwill Fund Network: Creating enabling environments for young volunteers in healthcare
Read more Blog
Natalie Corlett profile picture.
7 popular publications of 2021 – and what they can teach us for the year ahead
Read more Blog
Photo of Marilyn Taylor
Getting on the impact bandwagon
Read more Blog
whois: Andy White Freelance WordPress Developer London