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Sustainable Learning Revolutions

How foundations, trusts and NGOs can deepen their learning to create greater impact together


I wonder if a few hundred years from now people will look back at our time and think: Hey, that's when we really started to learn. I don't mean individual learning, but joined-up, holistic learning. The kind of learning where together we find more creativity, more fluidity and more understanding of how to act. This was the intention at the heart of a recent learning project initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation - UK Branch and involving organisations from its Greening the Economy programme. Through the project we drew out ideas about how funders and projects might achieve greater impact as a whole.


Different kinds of innovation

Greening the Economy brought together and funded twelve organisations working to find solutions for sustainable economies. Some of them, like the Finance Innovation Lab and Green Alliance, are leading new policy work towards sustainable economies. Others, like the REconomy Project and 10:10, are finding new ways to galvanise communities around responsible, collective action. Others, like Botanical Gardens Conservation International, are seeking  to repurpose botanical gardens. All of these organisations are valuable pioneers. The UK Branch is also pioneering – by working with them to explore how to learn and act more effectively together.


New approaches to systems-change and learning

In the Foundations, Trusts and NGOs world there is increasing interest in collaborative and systemic ways of working. Recently, the Corston Report in the UK called for foundations to work more effectively across silos, echoing Stanford’s work in the US for people to develop ‘Collective Impact’. In the UK, Forum for the Future have a Systems Innovation Lab. NESTA in the UK is also putting much emphasis on systems innovation. More widely, we are seeing the evolution of many multi-stakeholder ‘Change Labs’. There seems to be growing recognition that vast, complex issues such as sustainability require new forms of sharing, learning and working.

The project by the UK Branch was influenced by these approaches and rooted in the question: ‘How can a foundation like Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation help to create greater and more sustainable impact?’ To explore this, K&S colleague Margriet Schut and myself helped the group to examine not only tangible outcomes, but also at deeper structures, patterns and dynamics that can influence change.


How the sector learns

What emerged? To begin, it is evident that individual organisations do great things within their own strategies. But there is very little time or resource to reflect on learning or to share it. It is incredibly difficult for organisations to break out of a spiral of deliver… find-funding… deliver… find-funding.

This pattern is made more difficult where short term-funding is prevalent and it stifles opportunity to find systemic solutions. It begs the questions: How can you help to make more space for reflective working and action? How might it be possible to make collaborative practice feel part of everyday delivery?

Looking at how the sector organises its approaches to change, it is clear that many structures and processes are based on historic methods and habits of management. But in a world of complex and global change and challenges, these methods fall short.

Underpinning all of this, there is a deep, human set of dynamics around grant-maker and grantee relationships. These include assumptions and beliefs that drive actions around responsibility,  communication and transparency. For example, many people in foundations have a great sense of personal responsibility for duty of care and independence. This of course affects attitudes towards working collaboratively.   Some of these deeper dynamics are very much taboo, and touch on areas such as the role of intuition and power. Ultimately, without working with some of the blockers and limiting beliefs at this level, the system will find it hard genuinely to collaborate.


A Learning Revolution

Opening up space for greater impact becomes much more than about finding or backing the best ideas. It is about finding new ways to make space for ideas to flow, and also new forms of relationship to help people and organisations work more generatively across those ideas.

As we progressed through the project we began to re-imagine how a learning-led programme would help to make space for more open, more fluid and purposeful thinking. Here are some of the ideas that emerged:

  • To frame programmes as communities rather than transactions
  • To lead through open questions and inquiries rather than predetermined or prescriptive objectives
  • To look at programmes as ongoing cycles of action and inquiry
  • To connect potential partners earlier, helping them share needs and find opportunities to collaborate
  • To consider programmes as portfolios where some activities are high risk but with high returns in terms of learning
  • To help find ways of sharing stories more widely
  • To recognise that some organisations act, others connect, others support… in this way supporting movement as a whole as well as individual actions
  • To help individuals in foundations, trusts and NGOs to understand better the principles of working systemically
  • To explore new identities and positions for foundations, moving towards acting as ‘space holders, conveners, connectors’


Changing roles and letting go

The last point above is critical, and it’s interesting and exciting that it’s also the place towards which the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation - UK Branch is starting to move to. If we are to explore new ways of working from a deeper learning perspective, it becomes important to create new kinds of space to bring people together; to harness new skills to facilitate collaborative conversations; and to have real courage to explore new ways of working. All of a sudden a foundation may become more than a funder but a place, a hub, a supportive and critical friend to a community. From here, different kinds of action might emerge.

At one point in the process I shared an interesting story about a mining company that ran out of ideas on how to find gold. The company’s solution was to make all of the information it had public. People – competitors, shareholders and the media – thought this was crazy.  But by opening up this new way of working the company received hundreds of new and unexpected ideas about how to find new deposits. They literally struck gold.

Similarly, recently someone told me how the Rockefeller Foundation is inviting grantees to co-design programmes. This is also an example of new forms of collaborative working. This is what these times call for; helping great ideas and actions emerge, through new structures, new identities and the letting go of outdated models of working. It also feels important to open up new conversations about what and how we learn as a sector; to learn about learning together.



This blog also appeared on http://gulbenkian.org.uk/blogs/environment/90_Learning-Revolutions--a-guest-blog-post-by-Andres-Roberts.html