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How Shared Learning Can Drive More Effective Philanthropy

June 3, 2024
A new guide to “participatory learning” offers foundations a roadmap to building trust with communities and having greater, more lasting impact

Ralph Waldo Emerson once famously said "life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood."

His observation – that direct experience drives learning and understanding – reflects a principle we embrace at the Walton Family Foundation. In our work to create access to opportunity, we believe those closest to the challenges are often closest to solutions.

Recently the foundation supported the development of a new guide to help philanthropies engage grantees and communities in shared learning and sensemaking in more meaningful ways. From understanding the hidden aspects of complex systems, to the initial development of funding strategies, and ultimately evaluating progress and identifying course corrections, we have so much to learn from people whose lived experience gives them unique insight into how to tackle big social challenges.

“Fostering Participatory Learning Approaches in Philanthropy: A Guide for the Curious” is meant as a practical tool to help foundations address the limitations of existing feedback loops and strengthen their ability to effectively collaborate with grantees and the communities they serve.

We spoke with Clare Nolan, co-executive director at Engage R&D, which produced the guide, about how it can help funders operate in a more transparent, inclusive, and equitable way.

Let’s start with a simple question: How do you define participatory learning?

Clare Nolan: Participatory learning is about harnessing the insights of those most affected by social issues to craft solutions. It involves direct collaboration with these groups to ensure initiatives are genuinely supportive and effectively aligned with their priorities. For philanthropic foundations, this means incorporating grantees and community members into learning processes, which enhances decision-making and ensures more inclusive outcomes.

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Why is it important for funders to embrace participatory learning?

Clare Nolan: Traditional philanthropic efforts often rely on external experts to define and solve community problems. Participatory learning shifts this dynamic by including those closest to the issues, making foundation efforts more grounded, transparent and equitable. The idea is that communities and grantees with lived expertise should be more directly involved both in the creation of strategy and evaluating how effective the grantmaking was.

For example, the guide highlights various instances where foundations have incorporated grantees and community members into the design and oversight of learning efforts, sensemaking and action planning, and strategy development. These foundations have discovered that involving key stakeholders in defining what success looks like, interpreting data and identifying optimal pathways for change leads to greater understanding and more impactful results.

Why develop a guide to participatory learning?

Clare Nolan: The guide responds to a growing demand for innovative approaches to strengthen collaboration between foundations and communities. It provides practical tools and insights, helping organizations assess their readiness for participatory approaches and identify entry points for implementation. The guide aims to foster deeper, more impactful partnerships by equipping funders with the knowledge to engage more authentically with their grantees and the communities they serve.

The subtitle of the report is A Guide for The Curious. Why did you choose that?

Clare Nolan: Participatory action research is well-established, yet its application in philanthropy is relatively new and invites curiosity. We aim to demystify this approach for a broad audience, including staff at all levels within foundations, and to illustrate its effectiveness through real-world applications and success stories.

How can participatory learning help funders build greater trust in the communities where they work?

Clare Nolan: By demystifying funder decision-making processes and involving communities in strategy development and evaluation, participatory learning builds trust and mutual understanding. Acknowledging and addressing the historical power imbalances and harms inflicted by traditional research methods is also crucial. This approach not only builds trust but also respects and elevates the expertise of those most proximal to the challenges foundations seek to solve. We also believe that including this expertise alongside other types of expertise can lead to more successful and sustainable outcomes.

There needs to be a mindset around trying new things – like creating ways for grantees to be consulted or involved in strategy and grantmaking processes.
Clare Nolan, Co-Executive Director, Engage R&D

How can foundations increase their readiness to engage in participatory learning?

Clare Nolan: They can start by assessing and understanding how much they value community input right now. Do they only value expert input? Or do they also value the perspective of people who are closest to the problems? It’s important for funders to start by examining the kind of mechanisms they might already have for integrating grantee and community perspectives into decision making. There needs to be a mindset around trying new things – like creating ways for grantees to be consulted or involved in strategy and grantmaking processes. If you're not doing it, you might have to change the culture of how you develop grantmaking strategies and how you evaluate their success.

What opportunities does this provide for foundations?

Clare Nolan: Participatory learning offers foundations the chance to advance innovative solutions that are more responsive, inclusive and equitable. In our work at Engage R+D, we’ve seen firsthand how engaging deeply with communities not only improves the impact of philanthropic efforts but also helps foundations evolve in ways that are attuned to the real needs and priorities of those they aim to serve. This approach has proven powerful in deepening understanding of community priorities and enhancing the capacity of both grantees and foundations to collaborate.

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