Donor organizations: learning to learn

Andrew Milner

In the overview article for this feature (Space for learning, p26), Jenny Hyatt and Allan Kaplan outline their paradigm for a learning organization and the various ways they feel that donors are falling short of it. What do the donors themselves say? Alliance asked representatives of five donor organizations around the world how open they feel their organizations are to learning and how they adapt in response to their beneficiaries and the changing circumstances in which they work.

Is learning a means or an end? In the view of Luc Tayart de Borms of the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), it is emphatically the former. ‘Learning is an instrumental goal for an organization not an objective as such,’ he says. ‘The overall objective of a foundation is to achieve impact. For that, it is necessary to be a learning organization which gets its knowledge management correctly in place.’

How good are they?

How did our respondents assess themselves as learning organizations? Aleksandra Vesic at the Balkan Community Initiatives Fund (BCIF) admits that it is difficult to assess, but suggests that ‘being open to the process of learning is the precondition for being good at it’. At the moment, she says, BCIF is intensively ‘learning to learn’.

It is helped in this regard by a ‘strong understanding within the organization about the framework within which we operate – what we want to achieve and what are the values and beliefs that guide us – and a commitment to ongoing dialogue on this subject’. This creates a high level of integrity within the organization. This alone will not create a learning organization or turn decision-making into a simple process, but ‘it does help us recognize our priorities’.

While Andrés Thompson feels that the Kellogg Foundation is ‘very strong in the self-consciousness of its world view’ and ‘well centred in the sense that it can translate its views and values into sound action and programming in a very consistent manner’, he feels their weakest component is in being open to its ’emergent self’. ‘We are usually not as aware as we should be about how the external world views us and what they expect from us.’

Luc Tayart believes KBF to be ‘a very open learning structure where in principle all players have an input’. All grantgiving around a programme, a project or an issue is done by a selection committee consisting of the relevant stakeholders. He sees taking the other stakeholders into account as crucial to effectiveness: ‘We have to learn (listen, dialogue, interact, take advice) from the stakeholders involved in the societal issue we are working on. If you want to achieve your objectives, you had better be right about your theory of change.’

How do they learn?

All the respondents have their own means of learning from what they do. The National Foundation for India (NFI), says Partha Rudra, has ‘five-yearly external reviews and regular interactions with partners on a one-on-one basis. Occasional consultations with them in larger groups also help us to learn and be open to different perspectives.’

NFI is also, he says, ‘halfway through its visioning and repositioning exercise. The process has sharpened our own understanding of how to think about and present our work in a clear, comprehensive and strategic manner.’

KBS has advisory committees as well as selection committees, as Luc Tayart explains. ‘Because the grants are usually only one method of achieving the objective of a project, the programme officer has a broader theory of change. An advisory committee is very often formed to create and advise on this theory of change, again with the different stakeholders involved in the project.’

According to Andrés Thompson, ‘During the last four years the Kellogg Foundation has been involved in an organization-wide and sustained effort to improve its learning capabilities. We are much better now at understanding how we can work together internally while at the same time understanding the communities that we serve.’ But, he concedes, ‘there is a long way to go.’

Speaking from his own experience, which he is at pains to point out is restricted to Latin America, ‘in the North-east of Brazil we are working with grantees around the framework of a “learning community”, thus promoting a virtuous circle of theory, practice and capacity-building.’

Aleksandra Vesic describes four sources from which BCIF learns: from other grantmakers; from grantees – BCIF ‘organizes convenings of grantees from different communities who are working on similar issues: this enables both grantees’ and BCIF’s learning’; from examination of its own work – it looks at the ‘percentage of approved vs rejected applications, results of approved grants, reasons for rejection. This serves as a check-point: did we set the programme and criteria in the right way. If not, it gives us the framework for intervention’; and from other sources of inspiration as widely scattered as literature, history and the social sciences.

Like Andrés Thompson, she uses the word ‘cycle’. In each case, information has to be gathered, analysed and reflected upon. Where appropriate, the results must be implemented and the change analysed. ‘All these steps,’ says Vesic, ‘create a cycle, because when the last step is made we must start again from the beginning. Furthermore, it is important to understand that this is not a “clean” linear process. A sense of progress will suddenly be interrupted by an unexpected drawback or the throwing up of additional questions. This too,’ she explains, ‘is part of learning.’

Conflict between grantee needs and donor requirements

What about some of Hyatt and Kaplan’s specific criticisms, for instance about organizations’ not being centred – a common complaint, they suggest, for intermediary donors who may not have ‘the financial base to ensure consistency between beliefs and practice’?

Partha Rudra is clearly getting at this when he says that NFI is ‘struggling to bridge the gap between donors and grassroots needs. While appreciating the need for monitoring and evaluation of outcomes and impact, we also want to learn to appreciate constraints faced by voluntary action groups on the ground.’

At least NFI has a good perspective on this: ‘As a recipient of grants, we are privy to the experience of being a grantee and having to adjust to donors’ priorities even when these don’t match with ours. Balancing different perceptions and finding common ground is something we are trying to learn.’

For Aleksandra Vesic, too, a difficult balancing act is involved. She believes that being an indigenous grantmaker and in a stage of intensive development creates special conditions for BCIF: ‘Learning is always a question of finding a fine balance between completing the work that needs to be done and setting aside time for thinking more deeply about the work that is done; between obtaining results that will be appealing to donors and creating the internal “spaces” for staff and the organization as a whole to better understand the processes of change we are involved in and the impacts we are having.’

Striking this balance involves compromises, she acknowledges, which sometimes means that learning and reflection are postponed.

Fear of failure?

There is such a premium placed on success, believe Hyatt and Kaplan, that there is a corresponding reluctance to admit failure. This is most clearly the case for grantees who want to maintain their source of supply, but also applies, they suggest, to donor organizations who close their eyes to failed programmes. Is this true of our respondents?

Not at NFI, believes Partha Rudra. Admitting mistakes is crucial to its development: ‘We encourage both staff and partners to learn from their experiences on the ground and to admit failures as much as share successes.’ Likewise, BCIF has found it ‘extremely helpful to take the approach that making mistakes and accepting responsibility for them are an important part of the learning process rather then to be viewed as failures. The ability to be honest with ourselves,’ adds Vesic, ‘is essential.’

Nadya Shmavonian at the Rockefeller Foundation believes that this ‘fear of failure’ is overstated. While grantees may sometimes colour the truth in reporting to donors, evaluation is not simply a question of ticking the right boxes: ‘At the end of the day, I truly believe that most people want to make a difference in whatever endeavour they are involved in. Staff and boards of donor organizations are no different.’

It is not so much fear of failure or reluctance to admit it that is the main enemy, she believes, as inability to recognize it: ‘One of the major obstacles to foundation learning is our inability to identify failure when it occurs. I would argue that we don’t have enough identifiable “failures” as a sector to feel that we are truly learning in our work.’ She adds: ‘Part of the challenge is distinguishing the foundation’s failure from that of the grantee. Real learning for a foundation must comprise an understanding of both.’


Hyatt and Kaplan are likewise critical of approaches to evaluation which are obsessed with measurement. Shmavonian endorses the authors’ caution about an overly mechanistic approach to evaluation but points out that it needn’t be like that. ‘There are tools to employ in a continuum from simple grants monitoring to full-scale evaluation.’ Rockefeller uses all of these. In particular, and like the other respondents, she is keen to stress external sources of learning: ‘While there is real need for internal systems and space for learning, one of the disciplines of philanthropy must be to constantly reinvigorate networks and probe external voices aggressively.’

Luc Tayart sums up: ‘To learn you also have to evaluate of course.’ He agrees that what he calls output evaluation is often too centred on measurement. ‘What is essential for a learning organization,’ he says, ‘is to invest in outcome and impact evaluation. If the overall objective is a certain societal change, it is essential for us and for others to learn if the underlying theories of change and methodologies used were the correct ones and what the lessons for the future are.’

The crucial thing, he implies, is interpreting the evaluation correctly and then profiting from it. As Nadya Shmavonian puts it: ‘Understanding impact is highly nuanced, and probably a never-ending pursuit, but essential to foundation effectiveness. Putting that understanding into practice is vital. Measurement without a supporting learning environment to recycle that learning into future practice is a waste.’

Obstacles to learning

One of the greatest obstacles to becoming a learning organization, according to the guest editors, is an organization’s own culture, the assumptions on which it bases its decisions, which can imperceptibly become axiomatic. This is something that Aleksandra Vesic acknowledges: ‘BCIF has a culture which can result in the failure to regularly review strongly held and widely accepted assumptions and beliefs. Finding strategies to avoid falling into this trap is a task we all face.’

There are other factors which get in the way of learning, even when a donor organization theoretically believes in it. With the best will in the world, opportunities are generally limited. We have already heard Vesic talking of the difficulties of achieving a balance between doing the work and finding time to learn from it. Partha Rudra also believes that at NFI: ‘Internally the routine pressure of carrying out the business, ie raising funds and administering grants, is the main blocker. Nor is the external environment conducive to exchange and synthesis of key ideas and lessons from different approaches.’

‘We need to invest in systematic learning and efforts to capture key lessons from the field,’ he suggests, ‘not restricted only to our grantmaking and philanthropic domain but as widely and inclusively as possible.’

There is also what Luc Tayart calls the ‘invented here, now and by me’ syndrome. ‘Too often programme officers will reinvent projects and programmes in isolation from what has been tried out by others outside and inside the sector, and even inside their own organization in the past. This is an enormous waste of energy and money.’

The importance of trust

Andrés Thompson agrees with Hyatt and Kaplan that trust is important: ‘For an organization to achieve such levels of understanding the building of productive relations and trust is a must, and this is perhaps the largest barrier that we all face in this world of extreme competitiveness.’

Their wealth, suggest the authors, makes donors extremely ‘self-protective’. For Luc Tayart, trust is much more profoundly involved in the work of a foundation than as a simple function of its role as donor: ‘In my view, power has not only to do with money. Information/communication, people mobilization, knowledge and a brand name, for example, also create power relations and “power to change”. Foundations have most power to leverage change through their “convening” power and not the money. Our money power will always be marginal in relation to governments and the private sector, but the unique position and brand name which we have today (which involves trust in broad parts of society) gives us important responsibilities for the future.’

Influences from outside

Hyatt and Kaplan talk a good deal about the dangers of drawing hard-and-fast lines around an organization and its attitudes and excluding everything that lies outside. In one way or another, as we have seen, all the respondents are aware of this and have taken steps to counteract it. Aleksandra Vesic speaks to the point here when she talks about BCIF’s willingness to listen: ‘One of the most important factors in the learning process is a constant nurturing of the organization’s ability to listen: to listen to the people that we work with and our peer organizations, and also to listen carefully to people who have different perspectives on the issues we are addressing.’

Nadya Shmavonian emphasizes that it is just as important to continually reinvigorate existing contacts as it is to look for new ones. ‘Even with existing networks – our grantees, as well as failed applicants – we have just participated in the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee and Applicant Perception Surveys as a means to obtain another window onto our perceived practices and capacities.’

The importance of history

She emphasizes the importance of the past for an institution that has been around for as long as the Rockefeller Foundation: ‘As we approach almost a century of philanthropy, we absolutely cannot plan for our future without a strong self-consciousness of our past – in many ways this must be our first point of learning.’

How has the world changed in that time and how do they interpret and learn from those changes? ‘We are actively engaged in precisely the process the authors describe – becoming more self-conscious of our institution and work in relation to an increasingly complex world. An integrated process of learning and planning needs to become an organic part of how we work.’

In addition to sources of information from which to learn, she identifies another need, ‘an inexhaustible hunger to learn from ever-changing networks of people, and to push beyond the donor-grantee power dynamic for real feedback’.


This need, Shmavonian believes, must come from within the organization. ‘It is the board and staff of foundations who must build a climate that values learning.’ While she agrees with the guest editors that accountability is too often translated into misleading and simplistic measures of success, ‘I do think that accountability within a foundation is critical. We need to be accountable for our own adaptability, our capacity to recognize mistakes, to learn from external context, to change direction to meet changing conditions and seize opportunities more effectively.’

Learning organizations?

So opportunity and desire are both critical to the ability of organizations to learn. Pressure of business is apt to get in the way of reflection, and some of our respondents concede the truth of Hyatt and Kaplan’s assertion that the ingrained habits of an organization can prevent learning.

How far do their organizations conform to the guest editors’ paradigm for a learning organization – self-conscious of its world view, centred, and open to its emergent self? While they may or may not use this language, all our respondents recognize the ideas it’s trying to express: the importance of a clear vision and the ability to give expression to it through their work; the need to continually consult those whom that work is trying to benefit; and the ability to change in response to reflection on themselves and on external circumstances. Most of them feel they are doing this, even if not as effectively as they might. Perhaps the best summary of their response to these things is, as Aleksandra Vesic puts it, that they are ‘learning to learn’.

Alliance would like to thank the following for contributing to this article:
Partha Rudra Program Coordinator, and Ajay Mehta Executive Director, National Foundation for India

Nadya K Shmavonian Vice President for Strategy and Learning, Rockefeller Foundation, USA

Luc Tayart de Borms Chief Executive, King Baudouin Foundation, Belgium

Andrés Thompson Program Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, W K Kellogg Foundation, Brazil

Aleksandra Vesic Executive Director, Balkan Community Initiatives Fund, Serbia

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