A Compass in the Woods: Learning Through Grantmaking to Improve Impact

by Marilyn Darling

Jan 1, 2012

The field of philanthropy is under increasing pressure to produce – and be able to demonstrate – greater impact for its investments. A growing number of foundations are moving away from the traditional responsive banker model to becoming more thoughtful and engaged partners with their grantees in the business of producing outcomes. In the process, they are placing bigger bets on larger, more strategic programs and initiatives.  

What the field is striving to do now is to ensure that this evolution is based on validated theory, not wishful thinking or shots in the dark. The larger the investment, the more skilled foundations must become at managing risk – making informed decisions, tracking progress, adjusting action and learning – throughout the life of a program, so that foreseeable and unforeseeable changes do not torpedo an otherwise worthy collective effort. The traditional grant‐to‐evaluation‐to‐adjustment cycle is very long. Because many traditional grantmaking practices are proving to be too slow to adapt, these foundations are striving to better integrate real‐time evaluation and learning into their operations in order to become more adaptive; more innovative; more impactful.

We undertook this research project to inform how the tools and practices that support Emergent   Learning (described in the next section) can best help foundations and their communities – grantees, intermediaries and other stakeholders – improve the way they learn in complex programs and initiatives.

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