Federal agencies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations that are funding solutions to long-standing social problems need to continually assess their efforts and use the findings to adapt and improve their funding strategies. This article discusses the value and guiding principles for embedding reflective practice into the grantmaking process.
Although many funders and social change organizations espouse learning and adaptation as part of their culture, it is our observation that actual efforts to effectively use their experience and the results of evaluation often fall flat, if they happen at all. This can be attributed to a number of organizational factors, but there is also a common misconception that strengthening their funding strategies through more grants leads to a bigger impact. The reality is that as grantmakers fund more initiatives and more grants, the more time they have to devote to grants management work, leaving staff with less time and energy to reflect on what they are learning and what they need to do to improve.
To fully realize the important lessons that can inform strategy, grantmakers must design procedures and protocols that synchronize grant data collection with analysis and reflection and strategy development and improvement. By not being purposeful in planning for periods of reflection and related actions, opportunities for organizational learning and strategic improvement will go untapped.
A monitoring, learning, and evaluation (MLE) system is an interrelated set of activities organized in a continual learning cycle with four distinct phases that begin with: 1) developing strategy, 2) managing grants, 3) collecting performance data from grantees and from self-evaluation, and 4) reflecting on results before starting to think about how strategy needs to be modified or adapted (see Figure 1). An often- overlooked phase is reflection, mostly because there is often little time left over from the labor-intensive phases that precede it. It is important to note that there are varying levels of quality for reflection activities. High-quality reflection is ongoing (Eyler et al., 1996); it links experience to learning (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999); and it is oriented toward specific learning goals (Zlotkowski & Clayton, 2005). Below are five guiding principles that will improve the chances for a critical reflection strategy to be successful:
Invest in data collection and reporting infrastructure. This investment can include things like survey management software, qualitative data analysis software, database management applications, and data visualization applications. These are the tools required to collect and present the information that will lead to learning. A key step is to ensure that the infrastructure supports the types of data collection activities that are linked to the kinds of knowledge and insights needed by grant managers.
Build learning into routine procedures and protocols. Rather than relying on a single event or product, building procedures that actively promote, facilitate, and reward the development of a learning culture have the biggest payoff. Examples include convening routine meetings where strategy-relevant information is reflected on, including progress and setbacks, lessons, changes in context, and changes to assumptions or hypotheses. These procedures can be built at several levels, but it is critical that they are present at the senior levels that oversee the program, project, or other unit that is undergoing the learning-and-adaptation process.
Make the right kind of assignments to grant managers. Individuals will not use the information made available to them unless they have a clear assignment that depends on understanding and reflecting on the information. For instance, they could develop a brief summary of what they learned from the latest review of the literature or from a qualitative summary of grantees’ challenges to completing a specific task. Another example is developing an action plan to address improvements to grant strategy. The objective of the assignments is to cultivate habits for systematic inquiry, analysis, and learning.
Create a supportive environment that rewards innovation. It can be difficult to break out of siloed thinking and behavior, or to step out of the usual grantmaking mode to reflect and learn. A way to address this issue is to first build a space to conduct strategic planning that supports intellectual and professional safety. This can be accomplished by convening structured meetings with ground rules of participation and confidentiality. The main goal is to uncover and address the salient strategic issues, including tensions or risky topics that may have been holding back progress, while ensuring that conversations occur in a respectful manner.
Build trust in the learning process. Trust can be achieved by having buy-in (and active participation) on learning-related activities from upper management. At times, this is at odds with pressures to spend as little time as possible discussing content with senior leaders, focusing only on the results without the learning associated with the outcome. Leaders can help to remedy this gap by asking questions such as “What have we learned?” and not just “What did we accomplish?” Another good practice is to ensure that data-driven indicators and dashboards always are accompanied by contextual information that supports strategic learning, such as short narratives about how programs are adapting in light of new information and experience.
Conclusion. Building reflective practice into a grantmaking organization’s standardized procedures and protocols is a sure-fire way to maximize the impact it has in the communities it serves. Opportunities for organizational learning and strategic improvement remain untapped when reflection on data and process are not translated into a strategy-setting context. Creating a supportive environment for innovation, embedding reflective practice in daily work, and implementing lessons learned are essential to maximizing an organization’s impact. To accomplish this, organizations must approach grantmaking by pausing to think about why and how they are delivering their grants. This may require doing a little less but will ultimately lead to greater impact.