Blog / Grantmakers & Donors

Learning the Way Forward

by Teri Behrens
Learning the Way Forward

In the philanthropic sector, we’re told to find time to evaluate, reflect and learn about our past efforts — but to also keep up-to-date on emerging issues and opportunities. What did we learn about our work with homeless Vietnam vets and what are the issues facing vets of our most recent military conflicts? What do we know about early learning experiences for African American children and what do we know about the needs of Central American immigrant children?

As we all know, the social problems that we tackle in this sector are complex, with many interacting parts. Poverty, homelessness, poor health — these inter-related outcomes have equally inter-related causes. Particularly in place-based change work, where understanding context is critical, learning IS the key strategy for creating change (Patrizi, Thompson, Coffman, and Beer, 2013).

Strategic learning means being “plugged in” to the work and to the community in deeper ways. While we need a theory to guide action, we need to be willing to deviate from the plan when we get feedback that it isn’t working or when a better way emerges. (As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein said, “Belief gets in the way of learning.”) We need ways to learn in real time, as individuals and as organizations.

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Many in the philanthropic world are grappling with the challenges of learning, developing tools and frameworks to support it. Darling, Guber, Smith, and Stiles (2016), for example, have created or adapted a set of tools for what they call “emergent learning” that are useful for individual and peer learning. In another example, The Colorado Trust hired learning coaches to support grantee learning (Lynn, Kahn, Chung, and Downes, 2013).

For the Johnson Center, strengthening the field through learning is central to our mission. Our professional development offerings build the core skills needed by all grantmakers and nonprofit leaders. We are launching, through the work of the Frey Foundation Chair for Family Philanthropy, a two-year initiative to understand the learning journeys of individual donors. And, over the next three months, along with our partners, we’ll be focusing on this topic of learning in philanthropy. How do we learn in this sector? What tools do we have to support both individual and organizational learning? How do we learn from others in the field — and those in other fields?

In an oft-cited quote, the philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” This seems to be particularly relevant for our sector at this point in time. We need to adopt a different stance toward learning. We need to think of ourselves as learners, not the experts.


Darling, M., Guber, H., Smith, J., and Stiles, J. (2016) Emergent Learning: A Framework for Whole-System Strategy, Learning, and Adaptation. The Foundation Review, 8(1). Available at

Lynn, J., Kahn, R., Chung, P., and Downes, S. (2013) If You Build It, They Will Come: Creating the Space and Support for Real-Time Strategic Learning. The Foundation Review, 5(4). Available at

Patrizi, P., Thompson, E., Coffman, J., and Beer, T. (2013) Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty. The Foundation Review, 5(3). Available at