Changes to the Learning Function

Access Learning blog 1: Director of Learning opinion piece

The role of learning, data and insight has been changing for foundations, funders and social investors.

Where we’d previously typically see the need for a demonstration of outcomes and impact data or rigorous due diligence reporting prior to money flowing, we’re instead seeing an emergency response where funders are doing what they can to support organisations quickly with unrestricted financing for cash-flow and where investors have granted interest-free periods and term extensions. Now, the focus on the existing relationship and commitment between the funder and the organisation is key, and funders have rightly been more concerned with the survival of organisations over this crisis period than they have reporting or demonstrating impact. Where previously we might have, again rightly, seen strategic and considered evidence gathering within sectors to understand the “state of play”, we are instead seeing rapid, real-time insight gathering into the needs of charities and social enterprises. And where formerly we could argue we saw more siloed research and evidence projects, we are now seeing an even heightened desire for collaboration; common data gathering and open data sharing.

As Director of Learning at Access, I am thinking about which of these changes to the role of learning might endure, and which are unique to the here and now. What can we “learn about learning”, data and insight over this period? What changes and lessons can or should become the new normal?

Access isn’t alone in this – last month I attended an online evaluation roundtable hosted by IVAR, where evaluation peers at many foundations and funders were able to share and compare the changes they had been experiencing. Despite some challenges, there was a degree of optimism that some of the changes described above might endure into the longer-term. That we might see:

  • some continuation of lighter-touch grant making;
  • fewer reporting requirements back to the funder;
  • more trust and responsiveness between funders and organisations.

More recently, I attended NPC’s launch of their State of the Sector Research and there was an insightful discussion with more than 150 charities, community organisations and funders listening, around which of the flexibilities we’ve witnessed recently (particularly around core funding for stability) we might anticipate enduring into the new normal. 

We were actually already beginning to see some shifts happen pre Covid-19. We were starting to see funders; academics and consultancies begin to review and challenge the current role of learning and evaluation and reporting. For a start, we were seeing more roles, like my own, titled as “Learning” rather than as “Impact”; “Evaluation” or “Research”, both within charities but also within foundations and funders. This title shift is more noteworthy than it may appear. It reflects the move away from focussing just on proving (research) and attributing (impact) the difference you are making, towards ensuring that you are also a reflective and adaptive organisation than learns from the evidence it is gathering. The National Lottery Community Fund refers to this as “improve as well as prove”.

We were also already seeing new thinking, such as the emerging work of Human Learning Systems, which advocates for funders to support organisations who learn (rather than funding just for the generation of specific services or outcomes). Organisations that use their qualitative and quantitative data to adapt and to improve performance. This isn’t to say the data bit isn’t still important, just that it shouldn’t be the end-goal. What organisations do with that data is just as important.

We are also seeing networks and movements emerging that seek to change the status-quo, such as Losing Control –  a network of individuals from across sectors who want to “share power more equally as a way of unleashing social change”. In February of this year, they hosted a very well-attended conference (that Access took part in) specifically looking at how we can lose this control in funding and commissioning.

As a learning role within a funder, thinking about which of these recent changes might endure isn’t to say that there is a shift in belief that social impact isn’t important for charities and social enterprises. Quite the contrary, it is the very reason they exist and the very reason they are funded. And nor is it to say that there isn’t a need for charities and social enterprises to understand and evidence the difference their work makes to people’s lives and that funders need to support good, impactful organisations.

What it is questioning is whether there is anything we can learn from the recent ways of working (both pre Covid shifts and more recently) that can be applied to the new normal. Would lighter-touch data approaches and reporting; more of a shift towards supporting learning organisations; and an increase in trust actually be a beneficial outcome? Could trusting organisations to deliver social impact in the way they know best; diverting less time towards reporting; funding organisations who are committed to learning and adapting; and supporting organisational health and resilience actually increase the social impact we, as funders, exist to serve?

That’s an impossible question to answer in any empirically accurate way. So, what does all this mean for Access and other funders in the here and now? Funders and investors have a duty to ensure they’re funding good and impactful organisations. At our core, we are all financing social impact. But once we have made that funding decision; created that relationship with an organisation – does or should our responsibility and accountability as a funder then shift? Should we instead be concerned with the organisational health; financial resilience and sustainability of the organisations and their commitment to learn and adapt as they go? Is this what we, as the learning function within funders, should be monitoring? Is resilience, as a recent opinion piece from impact investing put it, our new “north star”?

This is something Access, along with others in the sector, will be thinking about. This first blog from Access’ Director of Learning will form part of a series. We will be exploring many of the ideas discussed here in an applied way. We’ll look at how Access is responding to the crisis from an evidence, data and insight perspective and think about what elements of that response might endure. In the next instalment we’ll look back on Access’ emergency response during the earlier weeks. In blogs three, four and five we’ll take a look at three specific pieces of recent research and evaluation work from Access to ascertain what we think will still ring true and endure in the recovery phase. We’ll explore what we can learn about learning during these times.