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Covid made us all into “learning organisations”

In the first blog of our learning in uncertainty series, Shoshana Boyd Gelfand reflects on what it means to be a learning organisation and how we might incorporate the new skills developed during the pandemic and embrace disequilibrium, to become lifelong learners.

 

Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the Director of Leadership and Learning at the Pears Foundation.


The literature on “learning organisations” is vast. In a fast-paced world, those who are capable of continuous learning are clearly going to outpace those who aren’t. And yet we all know just how challenging it is to be one of those elusive “learning organisations”. Moving people from a place of comfort into a place of learning is never simple.

 

So, here’s the good news – if your organisation survived Covid, you are by definition a learning organisation. There is simply no way that anyone got through this period without adapting and learning new ways of working.

 

These new ways may have included new technical skills such as:

 

  • How to be part of a team when you can’t be in the same room together
  • How to fundraise when you can’t look someone in the eye
  • How to collaborate using online tools
  • How to work when your child/dog/neighbour is distracting you in the background

 

Just as important as these technical skills, we all had to learn new attitudes and dispositions:

 

  • How to function in a situation of great uncertainty
  • How to motivate ourselves and others following major disappointments
  • How to manage serious levels of loss (of life, of health, or just of normalcy)

 

Both the technical and attitudinal learning that we have achieved have been hard won. This learning has made us more resilient, more flexible, and – crucially – better at learning (which is fundamentally about encountering and engaging with something new). We have learned how to learn: a huge achievement and one not to be squandered.

 

The big question now is not how do we learn –hardship is often an effective teacher, and surviving a pandemic has effectively made us all into successful learners. Our challenge is now twofold: 

 

1) How do we incorporate our hard-won Covid learning into our organisations?

 

As eager as we may be to spring forward into a “new normal”, it’s crucial that organisations pause and reflect on the changes we have made over the past year and a half. Many of those changes are worth holding onto! Organisations can ask themselves questions such as:

 

  • Under what circumstances should we continue to offer flexible work schedules?
  • Should we maintain a “paperless” office?
  • How can we continue to make conferences/meetings accessible and climate-friendly?

     

Leaders have an obligation to capture this learning, reflect on it, and consciously choose which practices to continue, and which ones to leave behind.

 

2) How do we continue to learn without the harsh teacher of Covid breathing down our necks?

 

So much of what we learned wouldn’t have happened without the pressure of closed offices and the simple necessity to somehow carry on with our vital work. If you had asked me two years ago whether I could do leadership training and team-building workshops online, I would have said no. I wouldn’t have even tried. And yet . . . what I learned during the pandemic is that this kind of virtual training is indeed possible. Some of the techniques that I discovered (by painful trial and error) are ones that I will carry on doing. But I never would have discovered them had I not been pressured into that. So, the question for me personally is how do I motivate myself to continue to be open to those things that I would have once dismissed as “impossible”?

 

The big question moving ahead is:

 

Can we not only incorporate the new skills we’ve developed during the pandemic, but can we also consciously embrace the disequilibrium that comes from being placed in new situations?

 

My personal conviction is that we have no choice. Our organisations have survived (at least thus far) perhaps the worst year that many of us could have imagined. We’ve lost so much during that time. The only way to make up for that loss is to learn from it – and to let it transform us into confident ongoing learners.

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How you make grants is as important as what you fund

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the  fourth of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Kate Peters (Community Foundation for Surrey) to share her reflections.

 

Remember March? The world turned upside down, and we all had to come to terms with living a totally different kind of life, separated from loved ones and our normal routines. Meanwhile, the voluntary sector was not only stepping up to be a lifeline to thousands of our vulnerable neighbours but facing a disaster in terms of lost income. Community fundraising was cancelled and contracts and grant funding were put into question as projects became undeliverable.

 

The Community Foundation for Surrey launched a Coronavirus Response Fund on 26th March. We made our first awards after only 6 days on 1st April. Six months and £3million of grants awarded later, what have we learned from the experience?

 

It’s not just the money

 

Although the money was obviously critical, what we heard from our grantees back in April was how important it had been to groups to know someone was going to help. A number of key funds closed to applications at that time–just knowing we were there for them was really valuable.

 

It was not a big job to send a message to all our grantees, stating that whilst we understood that projects might pause or even fail, we would be flexible with reporting and changed delivery. That was one less thing for grantees to worry about and an element of funding that could stay in the budget. It is a message I still need to reiterate to grantees as their grant reports come due and I always sense their relief.

 

So, what did we learn? – How you make grants is as important as what you fund. Our impact as a Foundation can be seen in the invisible, intangible support we give to our groups.

 

Keep it simple

 

Keeping the criteria for the Response Fund simple and flexible made it much easier for us to be inclusive and responsive. As a Community Foundation we have a large range of funds with sometimes very targeted aims. Working with one Fund was refreshing and made it a lot easier to make quick decisions.

 

So, what did we learn? –  We need to look at the criteria for our programmes and ask: can we simplify for the benefit of our applicants – and for us?

 

Relationships, not process

 

The biggest factor enabling us to make quick decisions was our knowledge of our applicants and grantees that has built up over years. We could cut down the length of our application forms and take a lighter touch approach to due diligence because we know these groups; we know they can deliver good work. 

 

But what about the groups we don’t know so well? And the pop-ups and small un-constituted groups? We worked with the support groups, including the CVS network, which agreed to act as fund holders for small or new groups. These local support bodies knew what was happening in their areas and their advice and intelligence allowed us to be confident in our grant-making.

 

So, what did we learn? – Investing our time in getting to know our grantees pays off. Being part of the local sector and networked with the key players is invaluable. We must make time to get beyond the forms and reports and build relationships.

 

Even more relationship building

 

Those groups, who we already knew struggle with accessing our funds, were left behind in the initial stages of the Response Fund. While experienced applicants can quickly jump on a new funding stream, those groups for whom grant funding is an unfamiliar world could not take advantage of our support in the same way.

 

So, what did we learn? – There is an opportunity to take something good out of the crisis; more and better relationships with groups which don’t traditionally look to Foundations for funding.  We must take time to promote and offer support to inexperienced groups when launching any programme to ensure everyone gets a fair chance. We have made a commitment to do better and we will.

 

What Next?

 

We focused our Covid-19 grant-making on being there for our community; a rapid response, enabling groups supporting vulnerable people to just keep going. Response to a crisis is not the same as long term grant making, but there are good lessons we can take from the experience to inform how we make better grants for the long game.


Next Thursday (12th November), in the fifth in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Andre Clarke describes how Comic Relief is driving forward an approach to funding that is rooted in trust: ‘we recognised timelines, expenditure and goals set out in existing grant agreements might need to shift to reflect the changing context, and we made that easy to do’.


If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email vanessa@ivar.org.uk.

Old dogs, new tricks?

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the second of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Oliver French (Lankelly Chase) to share his reflections.

 

 

The pandemic has given fresh energy to some long-held frustrations with foundation practice. It’s not the first time that demand for trust-based relationships, core funding, flexibility, responsiveness, light-touch monitoring and shared reporting frameworks have come up, and there have been many stalled attempts to evolve funder practice. Whatever the radical fringes and self-image of the philanthropic world look like, foundations have generally proved themselves conservative and resilient institutions, in that our processes and practices (and personnel?) change at a glacial pace, and power is rarely shared or distributed.

But a national medical and social emergency, coupled with a summer of direct action and debate about racial justice, has put foundations’ structures and practices under more acute stress than before. It remains to be seen which orthodoxies will spring back and which we might have lost forever – willingly or otherwise. Could we be in the middle of an evolutionary leap, where before we’ve only managed small steps? What stopped us changing before, and are those structures still in place?

To figure this out, at Lankelly Chase we’ve been trying to tune into change at the level of ‘how’ and ‘who’, rather than just ‘what’. A new emergency fund here, or the suspension of an outcomes evaluation there, will have quite a low ceiling. But the remaking of a trustee board, the redistribution of decision-making rights in local places, and the creation of new centres of power have much greater transformative potential. As individuals, as organisations and as a sector, we should not just be looking to ‘build back better’ on the outside, but from within too: rather than seeing change as something that we create, support, resource or manage, it’s something that we seek to model and embody in the ways that we behave.

 

As individuals, as organisations and as a sector, we should not just be looking to ‘build back better’ on the outside, but from within too: rather than seeing change as something that we create, support, resource or manage, it’s something that we seek to model and embody in the ways that we behave.

Complexity and adaptation

 

It’s a normal human tendency to see the things which confirm our worldview and minimise those which challenge it. For our part at Lankelly Chase, we’ve long held that social change work isn’t characterised by simplicity or linearity, but by complexity and unpredictability. Covid didn’t introduce uncertainty to our world, but it has certainly increased our sensitivity to it. It’s also given us and our partners more freedom to sit with ‘not knowing’ and lack of control, and released some of the usual pressure to reach for comforting but spurious measures of performance or effectiveness.

For us, coronavirus has been further evidence that we’re living and working in a complex environment, and we’ve been trying to deploy our resources and attention accordingly. This means pivoting away from a focus on things like planning, delivery and assessment; and looking instead towards sensemaking, responding, and adapting to continuous change. We’ve sought to do this collectively, alongside networks in the places and partnerships we’ve invested in – not trying to ‘manage’ or to ‘assess’ but to inquire; and finding that “what have you noticed?” is a much deeper question than “what have you done?”. Instead of meticulous planning and retrospective evaluation, we’ve been able to act (and fund) with fewer conditions and more trust, and focus on putting the architecture in place to learn as we go. We’ve been trying to do this continuously and ‘in the moment’ (about which we’ve published a series of blogs), rather than waiting for the benefit of hindsight.

 

Instead of meticulous planning and retrospective evaluation, we’ve been able to act (and fund) with fewer conditions and more trust, and focus on putting the architecture in place to learn as we go.

 

Back to the future(s)

As the pandemic has unfolded, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate conversations about crisis response from those about a post-Covid future. After an initial flurry of activity, the demand for quickfire cashflow support has died down (for now…) amongst Lankelly Chase’s funded partners (more on our approach here), and our hastily convened ‘emergency’ team has found itself inexorably drawn into deeper questions like “when is an emergency no longer an emergency?”. We’ve been forced to consider what kind of future we’re (re)building towards, what kind of environment we’ll be operating in, how our new context will be shaped, and who gets to decide.

At times the number of flatpack futures being offered has felt overwhelming, as thinkers of all stripes offer different visions of what society should look like. We’ve felt very aware of who has a platform, whose voices are loudest and whether they’re the same ones we usually hear, which is why initiatives like the Lottery’s ‘Emerging Futures Fund’ are so important – not just for centring different voices, but also for unashamedly investing in enquiry and imagination.

At a very simple level, the Covid-19 pandemic has unlocked charitable resources that might otherwise have remained in bank accounts or questionable investment funds. It’s given us both the opportunity and the cover to do more, more quickly, than we had originally planned, including undertaking bigger experiments with devolved power and participatory grant making. The test now will be how we can respond to our tendencies to slip back into the old habits we’ve professed to dislike, and ensure that what’s been proved possible becomes normal – even essential.

 

The test now will be how we can respond to our tendencies to slip back into the old habits we’ve professed to dislike, and ensure that what’s been proved possible becomes normal – even essential.


Next Thursday (5th November), in the fourth in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Kate Peters describes how the Community Foundation for Surrey has begun to embrace a different philosophy of grant-making: ‘How you make grants is as important as what you fund’


If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email vanessa@ivar.org.uk.

Joined at the hip: Why you can’t make good grants without investing in learning

All the italicised quotes here are taken from members of the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice – staff with lead responsibility for evaluation and learning within Trusts and Foundations.

 

At IVAR, we have long championed learning as a driving force for foundation strategy and practice. By ‘learning’, we mean ‘not monitoring, not impact assessment, not log frames, not descriptive reports, but proper focused consideration of truly mission-critical questions – about both strategy and practice – which lead to action’.

 

This discipline has never been more essential. In the face of rising need and existential threat to many sectors and services, the decision that each foundation makes about how best to use its relative financial stability has never felt more important. And to be the best that they can be, foundations need to be thoughtful and reflective. Which is why learning is critical: balancing data with intuition; combining evidence with instinct.

 

So, when we hear of foundations talking about the ‘choice’ to be made between making a grant or investing in learning, the alarm bells ring. For, in our experience of working with evaluation and learning staff through the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice, they are providing deep and important insights. Their voices are essential.

 

Here are four things they have shared, that help make sense of what we are all facing: ‘an ongoing event with no clear exit point’.

 

  1. ‘“This is what we know now” is the most we can claim’

The pressure to find the right answer to ‘What next?’ is acute, not least because of the funding cliff edge facing many grantees. Set alongside this, though, is complexity and a series of unknowns. Although this is an extreme situation, social change interventions of all kinds are characterised by uncertain pathways within constantly changing contexts. Now and for the future, decision makers need to respect the complexity – to look, listen and pay attention – and avoid rushing to simple solutions too quickly: ‘the time for plans will come’.

 

Foundation leaders can support this iterative approach through the offer of spaces for thinking, reflection and sense-making, and opportunities to share ideas and insights so that they can be used to inform the complex choices and decisions we all face: ‘This is far from over. We need to allow time to step back, be patient and reflect’.

 


  1. ‘This is what we are picking up so far, so this is what we can do – what do you think?’

In the current crisis, evaluation and learning staff will offer best value if they are able to be agile and opportunistic, working with decision makers in a dynamic pattern of review cycles, making adjustments and improvements as they go, on a much shorter timeframe than would be normal within a three to five year strategy. Many foundations struggle to achieve the right balance between performance and accountability requirements, and the tolerance for flexibility and uncertainty that enables organisations to learn and change. Therefore, learning staff need explicit permission, encouragement and support if they are to present the kind of ‘work in progress’ intelligence that will enable foundations to retain the agility and responsiveness so many have shown in this crisis, for the longer term. Not least because there is no straight recovery line out of the current situation: as far as the eye can see, there is uncertainty and unpredictability.

 

  1. ‘Monitoring and evaluation information and other sources of data can only take us so far: it’s folly to expect to fully comprehend everything that is happening right now’

Covid-19 has exposed the fallacy of certainty. Like never before, it is apparent that we live in a complex and uncertain world. Our knowledge of it and our ability to predict it can only ever be partial. Evaluation and learning staff have a critical role to play in helping to steer their foundations away from the risk of becoming passive observers, content to gather and evaluate more data, and endlessly strategise, in the expectation that they will commit funding only once they can knowingly, with enough certainty, make a difference. Gathering and analysing information may provide some assurance that strategic and grant-making decisions are judicious, but these efforts are inevitably imperfect set against real-world complexity: ‘The challenges before us are immense. And funders need to make decisions and contribute now’.

 

  1. ‘Let go of impact’

Evaluation and learning staff have begun to reflect that fretting less about measuring or judging the impact of a grant has liberated grant-making: ‘We’ve just got to let it go on the impact front and talk about the importance of the work. Our questions need to be forward looking: “What’s being revealed?”, “What do we want to keep?”. And not “Did it work?” or “Was it value for money?”.’

 

And they are leading the way with framing powerful questions about how to deliver most value, both now and for the longer term: ‘The question is “what can we do better”, not “what is the right answer”. Then we can try out multiple ‘better’ things quickly and back the ones that work.’

 

Just like the organisations they support, funders are staring at an uncertain and volatile future. Some of the tools they conventionally use to support priority setting and decision-making feel slow, cumbersome and a poor fit to purpose. Whereas some of the behaviours and insights of learning staff are highly relevant, useful and usable. Making good grants and investing in learning are not alternatives – they go hand in hand. Learning is not an add on, it’s integral and essential.

Our next Evaluation Roundtable convening will be online on 1 December, with the theme of learning through complexity and uncertainty. If you are interested in joining this, or our more informal Community of Practice meetings, please get in touch with vanessa@ivar.org.uk