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Dec 16, 2019 | Insights

The Learning Lab: Centering Our Community

In November of 2018, TSNE launched the Learning Lab, a two-year strategic initiative that will inform our social impact investment strategies. The Lab is exploring how we can better understand the capacity-building needs of under-resourced nonprofits promoting social good. The Lab moves beyond simply listening to our constituents to continuously sharing decision-making power with those we serve. Our Learning Board puts this value into practice by bringing a diverse group of constituents and staff to lead the Learning Lab, reimagine TSNE’s current service offerings, and advise us on future services.

The Learning Lab is committed to centering the needs of our constituents: fiscally sponsored organizations, consulting clients, trainings participants, and NonProfit Center tenants. Because of the breadth of this field, and to promote continuous learning, we used design thinking to split the work the Lab is doing into iterative sprints. A sprint is composed of Planning, Information Gathering, Analysis and Ideation, and Share Out. We will finish our third sprint by the end of the year. The findings of the Learning Lab will be shared sector wide, so that fiscal sponsors, capacity builders, and philanthropy can be made aware of these organizational needs.

Identifying the Needs of Our Constituents

Over the past year, we have met with more than 15 organizations serving communities across the state. These exploratory conversations helped us better understand the chronic and essential needs of these under-resourced nonprofits. Throughout the Learning Lab, we’ll continue our dialogues with community-based organizations as a means to challenge our assumptions, validate learnings, and form a more holistic understanding of their needs.

In addition to our exploratory conversations in the first sprint, we partnered with the NYU Metropolitcan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools to conduct a national field scan in our second sprint. NYU Metro Center interviewed 11 peer organizations in order to learn about their respective client needs, best practices, and delivery models. This was an opportunity to form a collective understanding of each other’s work and how we are addressing the unique needs of these organizations. The field scan provided the Learning Lab a clear overview of the ecosystem of supports that exist for organizations, and more importantly, it provided an understanding of the gaps and unmet needs.

Focusing on Ten Needs of Under-Resourced Nonprofits

In sprint three, we made meaning of all the knowledge that we’ve gathered from these exploratory conversations, the literature review, and the field scan. The Learning Board was tasked with using this information to determine the ten urgent needs of organizations with budgets less than a million dollars. The Board also reflected on their own experiences in leading under-resourced organizations, and incorporated insights from their peer organizations. The following are the ten underserved needs that the Learning Board would like the sector to explore further:

  • Access to reliable and affordable technology, such as equipment and software.
  • Onsite human resources supports to assist with staff onboarding, development, and retention.
  • Communicating organizational impact to key stakeholders, such as board members and funders.
  • Cross-organizational collaboration, such as peer networks.
  • Governance development, such as recruiting board members or developing useful governance structures.
  • Grant writing
  • Leadership development, particularly building a pipeline of leaders for succession
  • Incubation of ideas, such as funds and other supports to test out new ideas and/or services.
  • Measuring impact, including data collection.
  • Volunteer coordination and management.

What the Lab is Exploring Now

In our third and fourth sprints, we are deepening our understanding of the needs identified above. We will continue to center our constituents by empowering our Learning Board to prioritize these needs and co-create needs assessments that answer the following questions:  

  • Why is this a need?
  • Whom is this a need for?
  • What does success look like?
  • What are assumptions that we still have?
  • What data have we collected as evidence to this need?
  • Who or what organization is best to respond to these needs?

Collaborative Learning and Decision Making

The needs assessments, co-created created by TSNE and the Learning Board, will be presented to focus groups comprised of fiscally sponsored organizations and consulting clients for input. Then, the Learning Board will select five of the ten urgent needs for TSNE to commit to exploring further. This could include advising changes to current services, piloting a new service, or partnering with peers in the field who are better positioned to support the needs.

Our Learning Board will then decide the best presented option for each need and advise TSNE on how to proceed. This is how we will continue to share decision-making power with our constituents and allow them to shape the future of the Learning Lab work.