Nobody dislikes learning, at least in the abstract. It ranks right up there with apple pie, baseball, and foundation partnerships – almost everyone is in favor of it. But in reality learning is difficult (come to think of it, so are foundation partnerships). Organizations, like people, tend to avoid learning when possible. It is usually easier to go with the way things are than it is to change them. Think of your recent New Year’s Resolution. Or the challenges of refining a foundation’s program agenda.
It is somewhat ironic that foundations, given their role as social change generators, face more challenges in changing than other organizations. They are insulated from market pressures on the one hand and tight public accountability on the other. In both the way they operate and the program agendas they adopt, foundations, compared to other types of organizations, enjoy greater autonomy.
That independence is the source of both great potential and significant risk. The risk, in the felicitous phrase of Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Susan Colby in their recent Harvard Business Review article, “Galvanizing Philanthropy,” is not enough “truth tellers.”
Being a learning organization is one possible way to mitigate this risk. A learning organization is committed to improving through structured attention to its performance relative to its environments and its goals. The key to being a learning organization for foundations is being oriented to the external environment, not to internal structures and processes.
In this respect, foundations are similar to other nonprofits, where “greatness has more to do with how nonprofits work outside the boundaries of their organization than with how they manage their own internal operations” (Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie R. Crutchfield, “Creating High Impact Nonprofits,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2007).
An external orientation focuses foundation attention on basic questions like:
- What are the environments in which we operate?
- How do we analyze our environment?
- How do we look at risk?
- How do we think about our role relative to other actors in the environment?
- Where do our program ideas come from?
- How do we expect program activities to be sustained in future environments?
Wrestling with these questions is a critical (and constant) activity to determine what a foundation can and cannot do effectively, and to navigate the task of establishing and nurturing relationships with others.
Although it is important to ultimate effectiveness, being a learning organization is not easy for foundations. One reason is that, quite simply, they don’t have to. Because of their relative freedom and unencumbered resources, the external pressures on foundations are significantly weaker than those on businesses or public agencies (foundation “customers” are almost always polite, at least in earshot of foundation staff, regardless of a foundation’s actions). This means the impetus for change, for embracing learning in a meaningful way, must come from foundation leadership.
In addition, a learning organization entails being receptive to (even encouraging) differing perspectives. The impetus for a climate for give and take of ideas must originate inside the foundation and be genuinely acted upon in interactions with external actors; otherwise critical voices outside foundations will not speak up.
So to return to the question we started with – can foundations be learning organizations? – the answer is yes. But it does not come naturally or easily.
Bob Hughes is an independent consultant on strategy and organizational learning in health and philanthropy.
Disclaimers and Disclosures: The views expressed in the CEP blog by guest bloggers are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.