NPF TIG Week: Essential Elements for Fostering Learning by Julie Slay and Marissa Guerrero  

Hi, we are Julie Slay and Marissa Guerrero, and we specialize in evaluation and learning at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropic consulting firm that helps donors and impact investors be more strategic and effective. Many of our clients come to us to learn from their grant making and to share those lessons throughout their organization and with the broader community of funders, researchers, and nonprofits.

Lessons Learned: We know from experience that it’s not always easy to create a culture of learning and implement learning systems within an organization, but we’ve identified several essential elements that, when present, create an environment that’s far more conducive to learning. The following are critical to fostering learning in any organization, but particularly in philanthropic ones.

  • Flexibility in approach: There is no gold standard for learning systems, and as such, successful systems can range from highly structured and predictable learning plans to ones that are responsive, reactive, and organic. We always prioritize developing a learning system that reflects the needs and personality of the organization.
  • Staff and leader buy-in: Setting aside time to reflect and process what you are learning requires resources, so it is critical that leaders buy into the process and prioritize it. Additionally, staff must be engaged and interested learners to not only support but also benefit from a learning system.
  • Permission to be vulnerable: We respect that program officers and board members are learning all the time in both formal and informal ways. We find that organizations are often curious and want to hear more about the experiences of their grantees, as well as their peer organizations. Deepening learning culture requires inviting staff to be vulnerable and open up to new ways of learning, particularly in ways that might threaten their assumptions about what is working.
  • Change in processes and culture: We have found that, to create an environment where learning is a primary goal, it is crucial to have and follow a set of procedures that guide learning and reinforce a learning culture. Procedures such as regular and scheduled reviews or reflection will institutionalize organizational learning, giving staff a clear path to learn and share those lessons with others.

Rad Resource: We found the graphics in this article to be effective tools in helping staff visualize and understand what a learning culture requires. Source: Katie Smith Milway & Amy Saxton, “The Challenges of Organizational Learning.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2011.


The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG) Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NPFTIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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