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Feb 15, 2013 | Insights

Collaborative Learning: Lessons from our Capacity Building Fund

In these days of economic turbulence, the pressure is on to collaborate, form strategic alliances and even merge. Sadly, nonprofits either are not afforded the time to evaluate all options possible or to explore in an unhurried and deliberate way the pros and cons of a potential partnership. Indeed, finding time to do some deep thinking, reflection and learning is nearly impossible when working in or running a nonprofit: How can we do what we do better? What are others doing in my field that we could learn from? How can we do what we do more efficiently? How do we build capacity in our community to advance social change?

TSNE’s Capacity Building Fund (CBF) was established to help nonprofit organizations create and nurture space for collective learning. The learning not only bolsters the individual and collective capacity of organizations to do what they do better, but it also advances knowledge in their fields, as learning partners experiment with new and improved ways of delivering and integrating programs and services.

While the CBF funding prioritizes nonprofits working to advance social change and expects that the learning will yield results that benefit not only the organizations participating in the network but also the community at large, it does not define the learning agenda or the composition of the network.

We also do not expect potential grantees to submit clearly conceived and fully developed proposals. We understand and appreciate the need to support a kind of research and development function that, due to lack of resources in the nonprofit sector, too often is relegated to the back burner if not ignored altogether. In that sense, our CBF provides strategic financial support to nurture exploration, experimentation and learning.

What We Have Learned So Far

Since 2004, CBF has funded 25 learning networks. The variety of the learning agendas has been quite impressive and exciting. We have funded several learning networks interested in addressing structural and systemic racism in their communities or organizations. Another learning network experimented with ways to revitalize democracy in rural Massachusetts. Two others brought together several organizations working in the field of adult learners.

One learning network integrated the service delivery systems of the adult education and workforce development fields in Holyoke, Mass. Another network sought to develop more engaging curricula, based on popular education methods and philosophy, to boost the retention rates of their adult learners and increase their participation beyond the classroom to include civic life.

Still, other networks have had more practical and tangible learning agendas, coming together to figure out mechanisms to share fundraising, volunteer coordination and marketing costs.

TSNE recently completed an evaluation and there was much we learned about these learning networks. Here, we share with you some of the highlights. We think you will find these lessons applicable whether you are considering a collaboration, are part of a coalition or network, or are thinking of organizing one.

1. Provide Ample Time for Planning and Implementation

A network, like any other group of organizations that comes together in common purpose to accomplish what they cannot accomplish on their own, needs time and care for it to function optimally. Leadership from participating organizations needs to be on board and fully support the work of the network going forward.

Network members must develop trust in each other. This is particularly important because, often, the network brings together organizations that may compete for funding, donors and members. Often, there may be power issues within network members that will get in the way for true learning if they are not addressed. Building trust and shaping a shared vision and agenda takes time.

In 2004, the CBF re-structured by instituting a two-step process that now includes two distinct phases: a planning and an implementation stage. This change has greatly helped learning networks institutionalize their learning agendas because they have time during the planning phase to clarify their shared vision and goals and to work out any potential glitches that may get in the way of the group from gelling. The planning stage, lasting about six months, sets the stage for successful implementation of their learning agenda, which can last from 18 to 24 months.

Our evaluation showed that the two stage process of our CBF (planning and implementation) greatly facilitates trust-building and ownership among network members. In the words of our CBF grantees: “The planning phase helped our learning network focus on the issues we would be learning about, a process that allowed us to get right to the heart of the issues.”

Another echoed this sentiment, “The initial phase established working relationships and the principles on which the second phase will move forward on.” Finally, a third grantee stated that “The planning phase helped to build ownership among the six groups in our network – and to build trust which was essential for our ability to collaborate successfully over the life of the project.”

2. Contract with a Skilled Facilitator

While not every one of the 25 learning networks used their planning/or implementation grant to contract an outside facilitator, most of them did, and we found that such investment paid off handsomely. The reason is that for a network to function optimally, network members must develop collaborative skills: commonly agreed upon norms for the group, support for frank, participatory discussions, and honest engagement and careful listening to one another. These are but a few of the collaborative skills that are a necessary precondition for the healthy functioning of the network.

An outside facilitator is an asset in helping a group develop these skills. Further, the facilitator can help mediate potential tensions that arise from competition or power issues among network members.

3. Keep Network Members Connected

Consistent participation by network members is essential, yet very challenging. To bolster it, network coordination is key so that essential tasks, such as convening meetings and keeping members informed and connected to each other in between meetings, are performed.

In our CBF funded networks, this function has been carried out either by the same consultant contracted to facilitate, or the lead organization responsible for administering the grant award. Regardless of who does it, it is of utmost importance that someone be responsible for network coordination and that this role be clearly defined and delineated by the members themselves.

4. Engage Different Levels of Each Organization

Busy agendas, multiple demands and staff turn-over can certainly create significant barriers to the forward movement of a learning agenda. Our evaluation showed that engaging several levels of each organization went a long way to accomplishing learning goals and institutionalizing them.

In Holyoke, Mass., for example, Reaching Our Potential, a learning network of 10 organizations from the adult education and work force development field, came together to improve program and service integration. One circle convened executive directors in facilitated conversation about the fields of adult education and workforce development. The other convened teachers in developing an integrated curriculum guide and lesson plans. The last convened staff in developing an integrated referral guide for the City of Holyoke.

Even through Reaching Our Potential experienced challenges in keeping participation constant and consistent due to staff turnover, the multiple levels engaged allowed them to successfully complete their project of integrating program delivery for adult learners in Holyoke. In acknowledging the value of the CBF in helping them achieve their goals, one of the executive directors from a participating organization enthusiastically reported, “I’d like to bring these products [guides] to the board, the mayor, the senators and say, ‘look what happens when you’re funded properly – we have developed a model we can give to the rest of the state.’”

5. Make Sure the Goals of the Network are Clear and that They Address Real Needs

For participation to be consistent and engaged over time, network members need to have clarity regarding the added value they receive through their contribution or participation in the network. According to one of our CBF funded networks, “one reason these organizations can work together is that there is something they value over their differences.”

Another network participant indicated that “having a larger view or goal enables the organizations to commit to working and learning together.” Thus, the clarity of network goals, understanding how organizations and communities will benefit if goals are achieved as well as understanding that working towards achieving those goals requires collective learning and action, help ease the tension that often arises between organizational needs and overall network needs.

6. The Process Is as Important as the Outcome

Lastly, know that often the richest and most important learning that participating in a network can yield are the authentic relationships and genuine trust that are built among members, and the strengthened leadership and capacity to work collaborative developed by individual organizations and the network as a whole.

Reaching Our Potential is again an excellent example as demonstrated by their action of coming together in support of a network member who was at risk of losing significant funding. Although the network’s goals were quite different, the mere process of coming together periodically to learn from and reflect with each other about their practice, developed that kind of friendship and trust that galvanized them in support of a peer.

In the words of one of the network members: “We were able to galvanize around [organization] because we knew how important they are to the community; how important a cog they were in the bigger process. Whereas before this, if we tried to reach out we might have been nervous about each other’s program or funding or customers. We’ve come out of it knowing that all of our customers are all of our customers and we are bigger, better system because of that.”


Interested in the full report? Click the link below:

Download our capacity building fund report “Funding Learning Networks for Community Impact”