A digital series for the social sector

At the Johnson Center, we understand philanthropy as an ecosystem — one filled with co-dependent actors and organizations whose work is fundamentally grounded in a love for humanity. Nonprofits and funders, individual donors and volunteers — we are one sector, with common interests and common challenges.

But it isn’t always easy to find common space to dive into the issues and ideas that affect us all in different ways. Field Focus is our answer to this challenge, to empower our networks by bringing practitioners, thought leaders, and issue experts together around one theme.

For each Field Focus campaign, we devote three months to engaging with particular topics and concepts that are important to philanthropy — all of philanthropy — right now.

Field Focus: Learning for Good

April/May/June 2019

Effective philanthropy is not static.

To address the challenges we face as a society, we have to be willing to experiment, to evolve our strategies and our practice. We have to learn; and we have to be prepared to use what we learn to improve our programs, our giving, and how we measure change.

Philanthropic infrastructure organizations — like the Johnson Center — exist because of our sector’s deep desire to understand and strengthen the work we do so that we can advance our missions. That’s a goal we all share, and there are nonprofits, foundations, and donors everywhere who are committed to using Learning for Good.

For the next three months — April, May, and June — we’ll create and share digital content that considers the value and practice of learning in philanthropy.


Johnson Center staff and guest bloggers from partner organizations nationwide offer strategies and reflections on the value and practice of learning in the nonprofit sector.

No time for learning? Take a cue from Ice Cube and “Check yo self before you wreck yo self.”

Photo: Kelly Hannum, Ph.D.Photo: Jara Dean-Coffeyby Jara Dean-Coffey and Kelly Hannum

“As individuals — and collectively within our organizations — we need to take a step back from time to time and recalibrate how we gather data and turn it into useful information.” Guest authors Jara Dean-Coffey and Kelly Hannum highlight the dangers of collecting and interpreting data in ways that reflect assumptions and reinforce practices that conceal truth, rather than deliver it.

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We listen before we create: How learning relates to designing a brand

Photo: Jeff Terpstraby Jeff Terpstra, Scott Allen Creative

“Look for that story that really represents the heart of your mission. It will be both true to who you are, and resonate with your target audiences.” Guest writer Jeff Terpstra explains that nonprofits don’t need to create a story to lead their brand; they simply need to discover and share the stories that are already there.

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Learning in Foundations

Photo: Teri Behrensby Teri Behrens, Ph.D., Johnson Center for Philanthropy

Learning is a frequent topic of conversation in our sector, but it’s not always clear what we mean by “learning” — let alone how to do it. Many foundations grapple with the challenges of learning by developing tools and frameworks to support the process. Authors in the latest issue of The Foundation Review share their approaches to learning within their organizations, and Johnson Center Executive Director Teri Behrens shares a quick rundown of what’s in the issue in this editorial.

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Invite In the City: Learning from Audience Data at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

Photo: Brad TerHaarby Brad TerHaar, Grand Rapids Art Museum

Over 100 years after our founding in 1910, the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) is still invested in the vision articulated at our founding. We aim to be a “city wide movement,” a cultural landmark where all in our community feel welcome and invigorated by art and design. To live into this vision, we sought advice from those members of the community who were not engaging with the Museum to understand their experiences and discover how we could better serve their needs.

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Learning the Way Forward

Photo: Teri Behrensby Teri Behrens, Ph.D., Johnson Center for Philanthropy

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. In this post, Teri Behrens asserts that while we need a theory to guide action, we also need to be willing to deviate from the plan when we get feedback that it isn’t working or when a better way emerges. “We need ways to learn in real-time, as individuals and as organizations.”

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TFR Webinar - Strategic Learning in Foundations

Upcoming Webinar

Many in the philanthropic world are grappling with the challenges of learning by developing frameworks and identifying allies to support it. Join us for a webinar featuring authors from the current issue of The Foundation Review on Foundation Learning to discover lessons from both inside and outside the foundations doing this work.

Thursday, June 27  //  12:30–1:30 p.m. (ET)

Featured Authors:
Matthew Carr of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and Clare Nolan of Engage R+D

Moderated By:
Teri Behrens, Executive Director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy

Register Here

Professional Education

Workshop participants at the Johnson Center

There is a distinct need in philanthropy for opportunities to learn and to identify the resources we need to evolve our practice and respond to changing environments.

Sharpen the skills you need to pursue your mission with confidence.

The Grantmaking School

The Grantmaking School provides in-depth professional development courses for foundation staff, donors, and those who work with them.

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Nonprofit Board Certification

The Nonprofit Board Certification program equips individuals who currently serve or are planning to serve on a nonprofit board with the skills and knowledge you need to steward your organization.

View Upcoming Trainings
Webinars for All

Johnson Center webinars and the Grantmaking Webinar Series (in partnership with the Council of Michigan Foundations) explore the foundational pillars and unanswered questions in philanthropy to help you make sense of our field.

Brown Bag Lunch & Learn Series

This free, monthly guest speaker series is held in partnership with GVSU’s School of Public, Nonprofit, and Health Administration. (No sessions in May, June, or July.)

View Upcoming Dates


Dig into research and resources for over 70 content partners through this online information exchange. Hosted by the Johnson Center, LearnPhilanthropy is designed to help practitioners dig into the field and improve their work.

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The Foundation Review

The Foundation Review (covers)

Explore peer-reviewed reports, evaluation results, tools, and book reviews aimed at improving your impact in The Foundation Review, the Johnson Center’s quarterly journal on philanthropy.

Vol. 11, Issue 1: Foundation Learning

Many in the philanthropic world are grappling with the challenges of learning by developing tools and frameworks to support it. In Volum 11, Issue 1 of The Foundation Review: Foundation Learning, authors share their approaches to internal foundation learning.

Read the Open-Access Issue
Learning as Strategy

In the article Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty, members of the Evaluation Roundtable identify three common “traps” that hinder foundation capacity to learn and adapt, and urge practitioners to alter their mindset, questions, and processes to foster a more committed approach to strategy and adaptation. In essence, they argue for learning as strategy.

Read the Article
Consultants and a Learning Culture

Shine a Light: The Role of Consultants in Fostering a Learning Culture at Foundations argues that being explicit about the value of fostering a learning culture in a foundation within the context of any consulting engagement will enable both parties to more proactively strive for and achieve learning results.

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A Framework for Strategic Learning

If You Build It, They Will Come: Creating the Space and Support for Real-Time Strategic Learning details a three-part framework for strategic learning and then examines the experiences of four organizations (The Colorado Trust and three of its grantees) that adopted this framework, identifying methods of learning and resulting changes in strategies.

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A Framework for Emergent Learning

The terms “adaptive” and “emergent” are used, often interchangeably, to describe strategies by which funders can tackle complexity. Emergent Learning: A Framework for Whole-System Strategy, Learning, and Adaptation proposes distinguishing between the two and explores more deeply how Emergent Learning specifically can help create the conditions for effective change.

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A Case Study on Networked Learning

Shifting From ‘Evaluation’ to Valuing: A Six-Year Example of Philanthropic Practice Change and Knowledge Development explores five knowledge-development trajectories at one family foundation, including tools and frames that have been developed for increasing organizational learning, beginning network learning, and informing both program and operations for enhanced strategy implementation.

Read the Article