Catherine Jahnes on Learning Communities

Hi my name is Catherine Jahnes. I am the Research and Evaluation Associate at the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. Over the last three years, the Trust has attempted to develop a learning community around evaluation capacity and use. I would like to share with you some of the lessons learned from my experience with this group.

  1. Require commitment. – As funders, we were concerned about the funder-nonprofit power differential and therefore required little from the organizations we invited to participate in this project. In the end, we were disappointed at the lack of commitment they showed to the data and to the group. Make it easy for nonprofits to decline an invitation without recourse. Even when this is well done, nonprofits have a difficult time saying no. Without requiring some commitment, it is too easy for nonprofits to say yes, we are interested, but then not commit the necessary staff time and resources to the project. Reward commitment.
  2. Hire an independent facilitator. – All of the nonprofits invited to participate had long-term relationships the involved funders, so we dismissed the idea of a power differential between funders and their grantees. Not so. When the funders were present, the nonprofits were quiet and the group wasn’t able to grow together. The role of the funder in developing a learning community is to start it and then remove themselves from the process.
  3. Let the group lead. – Let the group speak! It is easy for meetings to become a series of presentations rather than a learning circle.
  4. Meet frequently. – Err on the side of meeting too frequently over too rarely, especially in the early stages of the learning circle.
  5. Make sure the group has a common level of capacity. – Organizations at vastly different levels of capacity have difficulty learning from each other. Building individual organizations’ capacity might need to be a first step to ensure a common foundation among the group (and a common need around which the group is organized). Each organization must be ready to learn.
  6. Collaboration is hard and cannot be forced. – Even if it seems to make more sense to the funders.
  7. Prioritize goals first, then strategies. – Flexibility is key.
  8. Clearly define deliverables and expectations. – This is true for the organizers of a learning circle as well as for the participants. Revisit expectations frequently.

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to

2 thoughts on “Catherine Jahnes on Learning Communities”

  1. The meeting frequently question is much easier to answer than the commitment question. Our group originally met once a month. This eventually devolved into quarterly. I would assert that meeting monthly is frequent enough, but barely. I’ve heard of groups that meet weekly. This seems like a lot to ask, but I believe that meeting once or month or (better!) more frequently leads to greater commitment to the group. The group will become comfortable with each other and will be sharing deeper, more meaningful information in a short time. So much time was spent building the relationship between our group members, and as the group started to meet less frequently, this relationship unraveled substantially.

    As for the commitment question, I don’t know the answer to that. Before we embark on a similar process with nonprofits in the future, we will be looking for buy-in to the group topic from staff members at all levels of the organization (including the board). We will likely ask group members to work on specific tasks within their organization to share with the group (homework of sorts) . For example, we expected members of our group to collect data annually. Many organizations did not do this. This should have signaled to us that the organizations were participating more out of reverence for their funders than to gain any knowledge or new skills for themselves.

  2. Great, helpful post on learning communities Catherine!

    I was wondering how much commitment funders should seek from nonprofits in terms of time and staffing. One of your points said to meet frequently. What did you learn about the ideal commitment and meeting frequency?

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking post.

    Susan Parker

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.