Stronger Foundations blog: How can foundation Boards support learning?

'How can foundation Boards support learning?'

This blog was written in response to ACF's Stronger Foundations report on Impact and Learning. This contribution comes with Katie Turner, Acting Head of Research and Development, Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR).

“A stronger foundation demonstrates a clear commitment to learning through the board and leadership team.”

Being a learning organisation means using learning to shape strategy and practice, so you can make a stronger contribution, and this starts at Board level. The attitudes and behaviours of foundation boards and the relationships they have with their senior staff play a fundamental role in enabling a learning culture.

We know, though, through our work with the 50 or so foundations involved in the Evaluation Roundtable that this far from an easy thing to achieve. Board members appreciate that change is complex, tough and messy. However, it can be hard – at Board, staff and grantee level – to move away from established ways of doing things, e.g. gathering data that describes rather than seeks to understand change or thinking that, with good enough planning, the path of social change can be mapped and reported against. It is also difficult to adjust to the idea that uncertainty, changes of direction and ambiguity are to be worked with creatively rather than avoided.

As a result, effective learning at Board level is too often hampered or derailed by:

  • Over-ambitious strategies and plans, promising outcomes that far outpace the resources, the timeframe, and the level of influence of a foundation or grantees, quickly leading to disappointment about performance
  • Reluctance both by funding partners and by foundation staff to share disappointing results or changing ideas for fear that boards will draw premature conclusions about effectiveness and impact – ‘we don’t see the results you promised, so we are pulling the plug’
  • Being distracted by what is happening in terms of the ‘big outcomes’ (the things the foundation cares about but which are subject to many influences) and not focusing sufficient attention on indicators related to outcomes that are more tightly within the foundation’s and its grantees’ control.
  • Staff spending too much time on collecting data aimed at describing change in order to reassure their Boards, leaving little to time to focus on data that aids understanding of how and why change happens
  • Reports and discussions at the Board focusing almost exclusively on this ‘what’ data rather than on the ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ questions that enable improvements to be made
  • Conversations that end with ‘green/amber/red’ indicators rather than using these as a starting point for a deeper discussion about the trajectory of change and ‘what should we be doing differently?’

How might these traps be avoided?

Boards have many responsibilities and learning time is a precious resource. Making best use of this time calls for clear answers to the question, ‘What are the critical learning questions that face the Board?’ Answers will inevitably vary, according to a foundation’s strategy, culture and approach. Regardless, all foundations then need to consider ‘How can we best use our resources to get the data and intelligence that will help us to address them?’ And then, in turn, resolve:

  • What data do we value and why?
  • What kinds of accountability structures and reporting do we use at board level and how far do they meet our needs?
  • What behaviours are we seeking to incentivise in staff and grantees and how well does our approach support these aspirations?

These questions and many others are addressed in ACF’s new report on Impact and Learning, which will provide boards with a range of prompts and pathways to stronger practice.

We support UK foundations and grant-making charities