Tuesday, August 07, 2012

How do foundations learn?

Here's a sample of conversations I've had in the last five days:

- A call with a potential client about developing a network knowledge strategy for their grantees
- Discussions with a foundation about their strategic planning RFP
- Exchange with a magazine editor about a book review to be written
- Exchange with a different magazine editor about an article already written
- Respondent to a strategic communications firm's interview about a philanthropy infrastructure organization's message
- Interview about knowledge management in corporate philanthropy
- Participation in a 2 day seminar with foundation CEOs, other consulting firm leaders, and senior program staff about transparency in philanthropy
- An intranet discussion about a webinar and video presentation
- A call with a financial services firm about their company philanthropy
- Phone discussion with a colleague about communities using philanthropic information
- A call with a different financial services firm about their philanthropic services to clients
- A call with foundation executives about documenting some of their funding models
- A discussion about the role of grants managers in foundation knowledge strategies
- A planning conversation about a philanthropy and civic technology gathering
- Several calls with several foundation about using their data to inform philanthropic peers
- An interview with a radio reporter about transparency in philanthropy as compared to transparency in politcal giving - focus was on reporting requirements for different kinds of contributions
- Discussion about future Stanford ReCoding Good charrettes
- Logistics/publication planning for Blueprint 2013
- Planning to teach a session of a graduate level class on strategic philanthropy
- A discussion about how donors use (or don't use) performance data
- Client discussion about a proposed knowledge sharing strategy
- Reflected on the fact that my hard copy Wilson Quarterly subscription is being switched to Pacific Standard and paged through recently received issues of Innovations (MIT Journal) including most recent issue on Unleashing Ideas. 
- Several exchanges about speaking gigs at assorted philanthropy conferences
- Conversations with a few peers about where community engagement, knowledge management, digital information, human-centered design and other "hot" topics in philanthropy are all talking about the same thing (and where they are not)

All of which leads me to ask, how do foundations learn from one another? In almost every conversation I found myself asking/reminding us of "who are we trying to reach?" and "why?" From the sample list above there are several different "who" and "why" answers. In some cases the focus is new product development, otherwise it's sharing something that's been learned, sometimes it's about capacity building, some of the discussions focused on provoking new ideas. Most of the times (given what I do) the "who" was foundation professionals and/or donors. But those are hardly monolithic groups.

And as you can see just from the list above (which omits names and content for obvious reasons) the "how" varies - email, face to face, books, articles, speeches, conferences, classes, seminars, hackathons, workshops, webinars, videos, database analysis....

With all that they have at their disposal (money, expertise, networks, flexible time horizons, and reputation) foundations have a great opportunity to try lots of different ways to share information.  It's not as simple as having a publications arm or a communications officer or a learning office or a knowledge management strategy but it's about using whichever of the above means/mechanisms fits the "who" and the "why." What is the right information and who is the right community/audience/partners with whom you want to share it (and when is the right time)?  I doubt that there is one, constant set of answers to these key questions for any given foundation. In some cases, the potential users of a foundation's information are few, but those few may be very influential. In such a case the strategy for sharing the foundation's information can be hands-on, personalized, ongoing, and direct. Other times  that's not the case. Sometimes more data is more. Sometimes more analysis and discussion will be more.

(I think I'll write a part two on this, about why this range of options means how we think about data and information at the front end is important. But right now I have to get back on the phone).

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