It’s often said that philanthropy acts as society’s risk capital by funding experimentation and evaluating new ideas before they scale. We agree with this sentiment, which is why we believe that funders need to be intentional about both capturing and sharing lessons about their successes, as well as their failures.
At Overdeck Family Foundation, we fully embrace the importance of learning and name “learn better, together” as one of our three core values. Our commitment to learning improves our own grantmaking effectiveness while also furthering the work of others in our field. For example, in our most recent Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) survey, grantees rated our foundation in the 80th percentile among all funders for advancing knowledge in our fields of work.
I’m fortunate to lead our Strategic Impact and Learning (SIL) team whose purpose is to inform decision-making and enhance the effectiveness of the foundation, our grantees, and others working in education. The SIL team seeks to promote the conditions and structures to empower everyone at the foundation to generate actionable insights that improve our understanding of the education sector, how we support grantees, and our ability to fund and measure impact. We seek to learn through the work of our grantees, emergent exemplars and best practices in our field, and through investments made by our Research team in discrete knowledge-building opportunities.
The straw that stirs this tall glass of learning is our organizational learning agenda. With no shortage of open questions and uncertainties present in our work, we set out each year to define a learning agenda with a finite set of questions that determine where we dedicate our team learning time and energy. We select questions based on:
- Importance: the question could produce insights that meaningfully shape the work of our Foundation and our partners (versus not yield actionable lessons)
- Relevance: the question applies to a significant share of our team and grantees (versus applies to a single team or small subset of grantees)
- Timeliness: the question feels especially urgent and of this moment (versus evergreen learning questions that will always guide our efforts)
We are committed to sharing our insights with grantees and the field.
Our 2022 learning agenda elevates five questions that will guide our learning effort this year. Below are the questions, why we selected each, and some of the ways we intend to engage in collaborative learning throughout the year:
1. Cost Effectiveness
Which types of programs and program components are most cost-effectively delivered through in-person, virtual, or hybrid models?
- Why This Matters: Building on new virtual models pursued as a result of Covid, we hope to continue learning about how impact and cost-effectiveness varies across different delivery mediums. Insights will inform how we pursue new grantmaking and support our grantees to enhance the impact and cost-effectiveness of their models.
- How We’ll Learn: Grantee check-ins and reports; internal cost-effectiveness analyses; third-party grantee evaluation studies and cost analyses; and synthesis of examples and lessons from nonprofits improving cost effectiveness through virtual and hybrid models.
What staffing challenges are grantees experiencing and what models work to overcome them?
- Why This Matters: Staffing challenges are a pain point experienced across our grantees, both in and out-of-school. For many, the lack of available staff threatens to undermine their growth and success. Insights will enhance how we support grantees to overcome challenges and potential investments that address the challenge.
- How We’ll Learn: Grantee check-ins and reports surfacing challenges and promising approaches; tracking market trends on nonprofit and school staffing; and funding research to better understand how the sector is creatively addressing staffing challenges.
What new approaches, measures, and capacities can grantees build and pursue to assess the effectiveness of new interventions?
- Why This Matters: Supporting innovation and validating grantee models is central to our funding model which treats evidence of impact as a precursor to scale. Insights on novel and more timely measurement approaches will help with identifying promising interventions and promote promising assessment practices to the field.
- How We’ll Learn: Analysis of grantee evidence rigor and evaluation readiness; analysis of evidence requirements for interventions to receive different forms of public funding; and funding research to validate new and established program models and learning from the process of working with evaluation partners.
4. Grantee Support
What grant practices and types of non-monetary support are most effective in enhancing grantee growth capacities and governance?
- Why This Matters: One of our foundation’s goals for this year is to offer an expanded list of non-monetary support to an increased number of grantees. Insights will directly inform how we scale and deliver these supports, as well as which supports we prioritize through our team and third-party providers.
- How We’ll Learn: Grantee feedback and pre/post assessment rubrics for grantees receiving capacity building support; conversations with capacity building providers and peer funders; synthesis of capacity building resources and toolkits; and case studies profiling grantee(s) receiving support.
5. Grantmaking Process
How can we improve the efficiency and experience of our monitoring and reporting practices?
- Why This Matters: Results from our 2021 CEP survey highlighted grant reporting as an area we can improve and streamline our process. Insights will be critical in conjunction with implementing a new grant management system so we ensure that the changes we make are most helpful to us and our grantees.
- How We’ll Learn: Input we solicit from grantees as we redesign our processes and best practices shared by peer funders in PEAK and other grantmaker communities.
As we learn about each of these topics, we are committed to sharing our insights with grantees and the field. You can expect follow up posts to this one at the midyear point and at year’s end. Returning to our core value of “learn better, together,” I’d be thrilled to hear about ways you’re trying to learn about these questions and opportunities to collaborate; you can email me at email@example.com.
And if you’re curious about our accomplishments and lessons learned in 2021, I invite you to download our 2021 Grantmaking & Impact Report, published last month.
Thank you to Megan Morrison and Laurie Sztejnberg for collaborating on this blog post and playing instrumental roles in furthering learning at Overdeck Family Foundation.
Header image courtesy of BEAM