Are you a learning and sharing foundation? Take the test…


Jake Hayman


Some foundations aspire to be organisations that advance knowledge, disseminate it and ultimately create change by affecting the work of others. Not all foundations have this approach. Some want to spend their money on existing best practice rather than developing new practice, for example.

We could argue the benefits of the various different approaches all day but this is the way things are. Some foundations do a bit of each.

For those that are interested, what would a learning and sharing foundation look like? How would it act?

The first step surely is to record what you think (based on what you’ve learned so far), to tell people about it, to encourage feedback, to act on the back of it and then to continually change it based on what you learn.

I like the carefully plagiarised title of an ‘emergent narrative’ for such a process.

Learning and sharing foundations would focus less on the impact of the things they fund and more on how much their voice influences others. They would focus less on backing ‘what we know works’ and more on discovery of the unknown.

Informed and inspired by a group that came together through Foundation Thinking, here is a checklist of things that learning and sharing foundations might do.

See how your foundation scores…

Emergent Narratives

  1. Do you have an emergent narrative or comparative communication for your organisation (or your individual grant streams)?
  2. Do you openly publish this prominently on your website?
  3. Was the writing of it informed by active outreach to?
    1. Frontline workers;
    2. Service users;
    3. Other foundations
    4. Charities;
    5. Policy experts;
    6. Subject matter experts.
  4. Was it peer reviewed by each of these groups? Did that lead to changes to it?
  5. Do you update it at least once a year to add in new learning?
  6. Does it identify areas that you want to learn more about?
  7. Will the majority of your new grants over the next 12 months go to these areas?

Sharing Learning

  1. Do you offer grantees frank feedback on why what you have learned makes you think they should approach things differently?
  2. Does this feedback occur before you decide whether or not to make a grant so that the process is a negotiation of ‘what’s best’ between two informed parties or is it a binary judgment made by your organisation?
  3. Do you resource your team sufficiently for this task or are they constantly missing emails, flagging reports but not reading them, slow to respond to charities and unable to proactively hear from and visit all those they would like to? From my experience under-staffing is why most foundations under-perform in learning and sharing.
  4. Do you provide access to sample applications (if you use application forms)?
  5. Do you have a sense of appropriate business models and do you share this with grantees?
  6. Is detailed learning about financing models important to you?

Beyond Grants

  1. Do you contribute to public maps and indexes of actors, thinkers, stakeholders and research in any given space?
  2. Do you monitor, evaluate and learn with a ten-year hat on as well as a 12-month one?
  3. Do you fund a dissemination strategy for the learning from every appropriate grant?
  4. Does the learning strategy include direct feedback loops with frontline workers and service users?
  5. As a sign of openness, do people regularly tell you you are wrong?
  6. Do you sit down regularly as a structured part of your work and talk about what you have learned and how that impacts what you do next?
  7. Do you publish a regular learning report?
  8. Is it everyone’s job to contribute to learning and is there someone’s job to coordinate learning?

Foundations that do not want to be learning and sharing organisations may not want to do any of the above. For those that do, the most important question is not whether or not you do each of the above, but whether you have good reasons as to why you do or do not do each.

I think each of the above would be worth the time and money. Do you disagree? Please drop me a line with suggestions for changes or additions and, in a few months, I’ll write again with what I’d change.

Jake Hayman is a CEO of Ten Years’ Time. Email

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