Learning about Learning in Philanthropy

Hilary Pearson

In a recent blog on philanthropic accountability I noted that accountability can take many forms; in philanthropy it often takes the form of accountability for achieving results (mostly successful results).

In this blog I want to focus more on the question of accountability for philanthropic learning. What happens when you don’t get the results you expected? Who decides when and how a philanthropic project is a failure? And more importantly how might one hold accountability for learning from failure?

We know it’s easier (and more appealing) to claim accountability for success than it is for failure. Both funders and fund recipients want to know that philanthropy has “succeeded” in its purpose. And they tend not to want to talk about when it doesn’t work. As I noted, accountability in the form of measuring results tends to predominate in discussions of accountability for both funders and nonprofits. This can be as straightforward as confirming that the funds were received and spent as agreed, with no reference to outcomes. Or it could include some accounting for numbers of beneficiaries reached and services provided, again without reference to outcomes. Failure might then be a failure of control but not of outcomes.

But what if philanthropy were accountable as much for learning as for controls or even for outcomes?  What would that look like and how might it change the relationships (and accountabilities) between funders and fund recipients? These questions aren’t original. They come up most often in discussions about learning through evaluation. Many funders understand the value of evaluations, and even set aside some funds for it in their grants to charities  But, as Caroline Fiennes, a UK-based consultant and director of Giving Evidence, has pointed out, “most charities shouldn’t evaluate their work”.  She notes that charities are best at implementation not at evaluation, and that it is a waste of their time to ask them to use research skills they don’t have to produce information that may already exist elsewhere about the merits of their interventions.

So, what should funders do?  Fiennes is a believer in practicing rigorous, evidence-based philanthropy. But she suggests that funders learn by seeking out sources of reliable evidence on what works from evaluators and researchers. Where reliable evidence doesn’t exist, this may be an indication of a gap that a funder can fill by supporting new research. In doing so, a funder is amplifying its own learning and acquiring reliable evidence that can help shape its funding decisions, without asking the charities themselves to supply the needed evidence. A funder can in this way take accountability for its own learning.

Today, many funders are being told to leave accountability for success or failure in the hands of the people who know the context and the beneficiaries best. This may be a fair statement to make about rebalancing power in relationships between funders and charities. But it doesn’t mean that funders should retreat from the opportunities to learn that could be offered through funding relationships. This point was well-made in a recent special feature of Alliance Magazine on Learning from Failure. Donika Dimovska of the Jacobs Foundation, guest editor of this feature, points out the advantages of systematic and proactive learning in philanthropy. She also points out “the disconnect we often find between how funders and their grantee partners set expectations and hold each other accountable not only for outcomes but also for learning.” Dimovska wonders “how often do you hear a grantee asking the funder: what did you learn, let alone what and how did you learn from a failure? ‘Failures’ are almost never the result of individual players but are rather the result of the interplay of actions, behaviours and attitudes of several actors operating in complex systems, which is why… engaging in transparent, intentional, evidence-based learning together with our grantee partners can be very powerful.”

There are many ways that funders can engage in (and demonstrate accountability for) systematic learning. They can fund the rigorous gathering of evidence, as noted earlier.  They can engage in evaluations, especially developmental evaluations which can help them adjust their own strategies and thinking, using emergent learning approaches. They can be disciplined about testing their own assumptions and hypotheses about the work they want to pursue. They can structure learning among groups of their partners by giving them opportunities for sharing learnings with each other. They can use Pause and Reflect approaches and techniques to systematize their learning and do it collaboratively with grantees.  They can create learning agendas. There is no shortages of examples and tools for philanthropic learning. What is needed is a learning “mindset”. Such a mindset is not common in philanthropy. As Donika Dimovska says ruefully, “learning how to learn is the ultimate frontier for many of us”. Yet there are examples of foundations in Europe, the United States and Canada who are adopting this mindset and whose leaders are highly committed to learning. Metcalf, Lawson, Hallman and Bombardier are just four of the Canadian foundations who have accelerated their learning approaches through the pandemic crisis as shown in Approaches to Learning Amid Crises: Reflections from Philanthropy.  It’s even more important that these leaders and their colleagues share their learning about learning as widely as possible. When accountability for learning becomes as important as accountability for results, the conversation about the role of philanthropy can begin to shift from exercising power to deploying wisdom.

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