Strengthening Intentional Learning
As I prepare to move back to Australia – a place that has felt much further away during the pandemic even though my dad did master video calls at long last and my mum sent the really good chocolate – I am reflecting on what we have done together in the past five years.
I’m struck by all the ways we have genuinely transformed our organization. From my vantage point, that is summed up in two ways: our shift from funding discrete efforts to collaborative outcomes, and our shift to more intentional measurement and learning. More on those below, as well as a little trip down memory lane to recall how we arrived here. I hope this reminder uplifts and readies you for the important work that lies ahead.
We’ve crossed over from simply making grants, to actively leading collaborative change. By that I mean, we’ve shifted from funding a portfolio of discrete efforts that we hoped laddered up to our aspirations for change in the world, to designing that ladder and then funding what’s required. We’ve been able to do that because we’ve become more expert at designing ladders. We’ve strengthened our muscles for proactively learning about our assumptions regarding bonding, bridging, and building outcomes.
We’ve also stripped away churn that is pervasive in our sector, where performance measurement is often heavy on metrics, light on meaning. We determine how we’ll use a piece of data before collecting it, so we can focus on what is actionable.
Those reflections might sound pedestrian, or process-centric, until you recognize that when we channel our energy into no frills, genuine learning, it ultimately converts into things like greater social cohesion in communities, people looking out for one another, higher quality public debate, and painful relationship breakdowns repaired to name an assortment of things even one of which is invaluable. It leads to thousands of babies and parents experiencing emotional connection, a generation of young people bridging across divides, and virtual and physical communities becoming places of trust and belonging.
My reflections on our progress take me back to my first week at Einhorn Collaborative. I jumped at the chance to sit down with each Domain Manager to better understand how our four grant portfolios had taken shape and why. I wondered whether philanthropy had the power to simply eradicate social ills, unfettered by bureaucracy. At the same time, I was curious how on earth we decided what to invest in without the steer of a political or corporate agenda.
In our meetings, you didn't regale me with insights like, “Empathy is caught not taught,” or “Children learn empathy through their school experiences, which is why we invest in school-wide culture over a text book on empathy.” The sorts of insights I read later when I dusted off our strategy slide deck. Instead, y’all (yes, I say that now) described the relationships you had with each of your grantee partners. The hard times you’d navigated together. The courses of action taken when things hit the fan. Such a deeply relational approach to grantmaking was dramatically different from what I had experienced as a grantee of other funders.
This approach helped foster human connection and collaboration, essential ingredients for social change. The challenge was, I couldn’t see how all the individual effort was enabling us to accomplish our mission. We were dedicating lots of energy to thinking about each individual organization, addressing topics that inevitably arose but without an agenda for the change we wanted to affect in the world.
While it was clear we were learning a lot from our partners on the regular, that learning sometimes struggled to yield strategic choices. Often, learning was a desirable byproduct rather than a driving force, where what was learned and what was forgotten may have been a bit random.
One of the early opportunities for more intentional learning was our Helping People Get Along Better Fund – our investment in 37 projects that helped people bridge across the political aisle, religious differences, age gaps, and more, following a polarizing 2016 election. To learn from that fund, we identified seven topics that cut across the individual grants. Things like, key ingredients for authentic human connection in the post-election climate, how to attract skeptics, whether our foundation should repeat this kind of project-based grantmaking. These were topics we and our partners could act on, and weren’t about making judgements about individual projects or renewal.
I assigned each team member a batch of grant reports and asked you to find time to read them all in one sitting, looking for insights on our seven cross-cutting topics. This meant overriding ingrained habits of reading each report ad hoc, when it landed in our inbox, an historic approach that had meant holding data in your memory to spot patterns over several months.
We came together around the whiteboard for a deeper discussion of those topics and made room for other curiosities too. How quick and easy it was to see patterns and build on each other’s intel when we did it together, intentionally. We wrote up and shared our insights with grantees as an invitation for further learning conversations, and this became a chief source of information for our next strategy. To be clear, this was far from my best work, (if I were doing it again now, I’d do things differently) but it was a step in the right direction of intentionally learning at the level we could act on.
Then came emergent learning, a discipline for deriving a higher return on our learning efforts and eliminating churn. As Chera Reid of the Center for Evaluation Innovation aptly puts it, “Emergent Learning helps you see the rudder in the middle of the murky ocean.” Our job in philanthropy is to narrow down what can feel like infinite choice. To constantly figure out the “So what?” implications of new evidence, opinions, and experiences related to complex social change.
Our emergent learning practices have given us the routine for our (sometimes Olympic level) mental gymnastics. They prompt us to pinpoint the assumptions that are being affirmed or questioned by a data set, and determine what to do about that. They help us derive higher quality reflections by simply predicting and debriefing. These practices now show up in many places, from multi-million dollar decisions on grantmaking strategy to our return to workplace team norms.
Emergent learning, and the honing of our strategies, has also helped us get clearer on what we really need to know. Moving beyond “this is interesting” and into actionable learning territory. That has affected what we measure and request from grantees, and each other.
We haven’t purchased a new database or tripled our tracking of “things.” We’ve evolved our learning through culture, by forming good habits that make learning intentional and actionable.
Lately, you and I haven’t requested many reports from grantees. While lessening the burden on grantee partners, especially during COVID-19, is itself a worthwhile reason, that doesn’t explain our reasoning. Consistent with everything else along this memory lane, we’re being more intentional, ensuring a clear plan for how we and our grantees will act on information before asking for it to be collected. It’s feasible that in future, the information we and our collaboratives agree we need will in fact be very burdensome. It’s equally likely that it won’t be. The point is, our primary concern is not level of effort or burden, but rather, return on that effort for all of our fellow actors in this important work.
Pair-shares, a term to describe when we put heads together to interpret data, have changed too. We are now in the habit of using our team time to wrestle how to solve the crisis of connection in this country, not just looking for a spot of wisdom on say, the pros and cons of funder collaboratives. And gaining alternative perspectives by pair-sharing with people outside our organization who look and think differently to us.
So here we are. We haven’t purchased a new database or tripled our tracking of “things.” We’ve evolved our learning through culture, by forming good habits that make learning intentional and actionable.
That’s what I’ve learned and am taking with me. That to get to quality learning, the kind where assumptions are upended or conversely, affirmed with conviction, we make it part of our daily operations. We give each other permission to ask tough questions to really wrestle with complexity and data to get beyond armchair intellect to meaningful change. At Einhorn Collaborative we have been able to do that because of the trusting relationships we’ve built with each other, which I will cherish forever and try to replicate wherever I go.