Sunday, February 22, 2009

Providing support for learning/policy communities among "grantees"

My first suggestion to enhance philanthropy is for foundations or philanthropists to be trend and energy seekers. Rather than have lengthy planning/priority sessions, why not have the program staff (and board) call people they respect (and then some random names from the non-profit, grassroots community) and ask them what they think are the most exciting projects, directions, organizations and individuals working in communities? As a result of listening, the foundation will quickly find out where the energy is, so that they can support, enhance and scale that good energy.

The first step in enhancing already emerging energy is to encourage and assist those energy centers to enhance their networks. I remember one very nice foundation that decided, after much internal study, on a focus for their grantmaking. They made a request for proposals from organizations interested in that particular focus area. Then the foundation selected a dozen or so organizations and brought them together to form a "network." Unfortunately, most of these organizations felt they had little in common and the processes the foundation used in their "network" gatherings did little to help the organizations get to know each other so they never identified commonalities. Because of the structure of the proposals (everyone had to lay out a 3-year plan), all of the groups had already decided what they were going to do, so there was little room for collaborative projects to emerge from the "network."

Now, let's look at another scenario. The foundation or investors identify energy centers in the network and ask them to identify their current network and who else they would like to be connected with. The foundation then negotiates a network building initiative with the core of the network (usually 6-10 organizations), providing the core with support to map their network and then learn basic Network Weaving skills so they can expand and enhance their network relationships. A key aspect of this strategy is to use the network weaving "training" as an opportunity to support the formation of a peer Community of Practice/Action/Reflection. Part of the Network Guardian role the foundation plays involves listening to the organizations and facilitating (or paying for facilitators) who watch topics emerge and structure convenings of all sorts (phone, FTF, Ning) (Twosies, small groups) to research and/or organize learning/discussion on these emerging topics. Out of this initial learning action collaborations form (which will usually need some coaching in inter-organizational project management!) and start doing things, usually innovative actions where there is high uncertainty.

So again, the foundation can help the collaboratives process what is happening - in real time as they "rapid prototype" - and make sense of what is happening. Does what they are doing feel like its going in the right direction? What have they been surprised about? What did they notice? What do they need to learn about? Who can they learn that from? For this kind of learning to lead to breakthroughs, the foundation as network guardian will need to make sure the reflection process includes participants and observers as well as the organizational staff.

So that this peer learning network is sustainable, it's important that the initial facilitator train individuals in the network in the skills need to continue learning activities after the initial grant ends. In this way, the facilitators seed the network with new network building and learning capacities that can become positively infectious!

What are your thoughts? Would this approach work? Who has already tried something like this?

1 comment:

Nurture Girl said...

Wonderful strategic approach for foundations to take! And yes, I believe MacArthur Foundation does something loosely like this, although perhaps the facilitation role isn't clear. I will ask. :)