Academic journal article The Foundation Review

If You Build It, They Will Come: Creating the Space and Support for Real-Time Strategic Learning

Academic journal article The Foundation Review

If You Build It, They Will Come: Creating the Space and Support for Real-Time Strategic Learning

Article excerpt

Keywords: Strategic learning, real-time learning, evaluation, data, access to health, coaching, effectiveness, public will building, Colorado, theory of change, debrief, The Colorado Trust


The effectiveness of funding strategies is a primary concern for foundation boards and staff and in response, they use a wide variety of tools intended to improve internal and external effectiveness. A frequently suggested tool for improving effectiveness is for foundations to "get better at learning and applying that learning to strategy" (Patrizia & Thompson, 2011, p. 59). At its best, this capacity to learn and apply the learning allows a foundation to "stay focused on results, while continually refining and adjusting its operation" in real time (Brown, Colombo, & Hughes, 2009).

Evaluators are part of the process of learning, and they are developing new methods that allow them to provide feedback to their foundation partners in real time, including the real-time evaluation memo, evaluation learning circles, intense-period debriefs, and other tools for timely, data-based feedback to inform decision-making (Hwalek & Williams, 2011; Cohen, 2006; Stuart, 2007). It is a significant step; however, for a foundation to move from a more traditional, retrospective use of evaluation results to being real-time learners, and it is only a first step. Grantmakers understand that impact is only partially within their control. Once grants are made, funders are a step removed from the implementation and must rely on their grantees to implement effectively. In the context of real-time learning and strategy improvements, this suggests foundations may want to build this capacity in their grantees in addition to within the foundation.

Foundations have long used technical assistance in combination with funding to increase the capacity of the nonprofits they fund. Technical assistance provided by funders varies greatly, from general capacity building and organizational development to specific needs such as communications assistance for advocacy organizations or facilitators for community coalitions. Technical assistance specific to real-time learning is less common, in part because real-time learning itself is still an emerging concept.

As part of its strategy to build public will for access to health, The Colorado Trust sought to address this need and provided 14 grantees with real-time strategic learning coaches through Spark Policy Institute, a national change agent that works with nonprofits, foundations, policymakers, and communities to effect meaningful change on complex problems. The coaching was designed to help grantee organizations be more successful at achieving their grant objectives, and consequently help the foundation to achieve its overall strategy objectives. Each grantee implemented a combination of real-time systematic data collection, collective interpretation of the information, and purposeful decision-making to improve their strategies.

After more than two years of coaching and grantee implementation of strategic learning, The Trust and Spark Policy Institute have developed and tested this approach and documented case studies of when and how this model of strategic learning works, with examples from both the grantee-level coaching and the funder's more comprehensive strategic learning activities.

The Context: Building Public Will for Access to Health

In 2010 The Trust launched a three-year, statewide strategy to build public will to help achieve access to health for Coloradans. The genesis of The Trust's efforts rested in the idea that grassroots social movements have long been an integral element of reform. These movements have fundamentally sought to engage, inform, and activate a broader populace so that health care is not solely driven by interest groups or institutional elites, but also by citizens whose lived experiences comprise the reality of the health care system. …

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