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What is Strategic Learning

Resource type: News

The Evaluation Exchange |

and How Do You Develop an Organizational Culture that Encourages It? The Evaluation Exchange Volume XI, No. 2, Summer 2005 Issue Topic: Evaluation Methodology Ask the Expert John A. Healy, Director of Strategic Learning and Evaluation at The Atlantic Philanthropies, shares ways to position learning as an organizational priority. The Strategic Learning and Evaluation (SLAE) team at The Atlantic Philanthropies develops evaluation techniques, encourages learning from foundation and grantee experiences, and facilitates dissemination of that learning. Strategic learning means that SLAE’s audiences-the foundation, grantees, and interested external audiences-understand and respond to the lessons they learn from both formal evaluation and more informal monitoring. We use multiple tactics to create a culture that emphasizes learning. 1. Position evaluation as a resource linked to strategy. We began SLAE in early 2004 knowing that it was important to demonstrate the value of learning and evaluation in creating and executing more effective strategy. SLAE staff have both strong evaluation skills and the rare ability to build enthusiasm for evaluation. SLAE works hard to ensure that both grantees and Atlantic see planning and evaluation as strategic and necessary to reach their goals. Within Atlantic we act as a resource, using an approach influenced by strategic planning. SLAE helps staff plan program strategy, map out grant strategies, and ensure programs are ready to be evaluated. We use strategic planning tools (e.g., logic models and theories of change) to clarify our intended outcomes and the strategies to achieve them. We also work with staff to help grantees plan strategically. Importantly, Atlantic objectives are informed by grantees’ objectives, rather than imposed by Atlantic. As a result, grantees have an incentive to learn because their objectives are their own. Once the buy-in for evaluation exists, we position evaluation as practical and useful for grantees’ work. For example, human rights grantees’ focus has long been on fighting for a particular cause and not on assessment, so we emphasize the importance of fighting the good fight effectively. If we frame evaluation correctly and align it with the mission of the organization, grantees see it as a win because it informs their work. Our approach helps us adapt as we learn and as the grant making environments change. 2. Share accountability, acknowledge risk, and reward adaptive learning. Atlantic has a vertical grant approval structure. Working with grantees, teams of program executives develop grant proposals. They make recommendations to a program investment committee, and the committee submits grants to the board for approval. So at the end of the day, everyone is accountable for decisions about grant making. Because accountability is shared, it is essential that everyone understands the risks associated with grants and has an open dialogue about what may or may not work. If we are clear on the risks and the grant fails but we learn something from it, the result can be as valuable as if the grant had succeeded. In assessing progress we refer to grantee reports, rigorous project evaluations, and external evaluations of grant clusters in our four program areas.* Now we are working on creating incentives for learning from mistakes at all levels of the foundation. Staff need to understand that adaptive behavior from learning will be rewarded. Shared accountability helps since the organization is seen as taking the risk rather than individuals. We also try to be open with grantees about the risks involved in their work. When we encourage evaluation, grantees know we want honest answers. We build relationships with grantees so they see us as advisors, and, if necessary, sources of funding to solve problems. This reinforcing of the message that failure can lead to valuable lessons is essential if a culture of strategic learning is to be developed. If the context changes or evaluation findings signal the need for change, grantees understand they scan, and should, adjust if their approaches are no longer relevant. 3. Create space and structure for learning. It is not enough to encourage learning; we need to create space and structure for doing it. To encourage internal learning, program staff and board members have a fundamental discussion around strategy annually. We ensure the board is clear on what we are trying to achieve, and that they engage in the learning process. With grantees, we build purposeful opportunities for information exchange. For example, external evaluators meet with Atlantic teams and grantees biannually for a mutual exchange, with evaluators responding to grant-related data that staff and grantees provide and vice versa. 4. Focus on different levels of learning. Atlantic has agreed on a number of levels on which we will share learning, and SLAE is now working with our communications staff to ensure learning is targeted effectively to internal and external audiences. At the foundation level, we will share case studies on organizational development and key areas of change management. Atlantic has chosen to spend down our endowment over the next 10 to 15 years. As we do, we will share lessons on what the foundation does, and what we learn along the way. Also at the foundation level, we will commission significant studies on areas of strategic importance to the foundation. For example, since many Atlantic objectives focus on policy change, we will share lessons about key aspects of this process, such as evidence gathering and advocacy. Additionally, at the program area level, every 3 to 4 years we will commission more intensive evaluation where we pause and evaluate the core program areas in-depth. Finally, at the grantee level, we ensure they can share their own lessons. We build in funding for communications, and work closely with grantees to ensure they go that final step. Evaluation Exchange Julia Coffman, Consultant. HFRP Erin Harris, Research Analyst, HFRP * Atlantic’s four program areas are Aging, Disadvantaged Children and Youth, Population Health, and Reconciliation and Human Rights. © The Atlantic Philanthropies

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SLAE, strategic learning and evaluation