In the News: GEO ASKS Peter Laugharn about Firelight's 'Learning Agenda'

In this issue of their quarterly newsletter, Impact, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) examines "how grantmakers will influence the future of collaborative assessment, and how they can best support nonprofits in developing methods for participatory evaluation". Among the grantmakers they interviewed is Peter Laugharn, executive director at the Firelight Foundation, whose staff is working to share what they're learning both to improve internal programming as well as to provide other funders and practitioners with the lessons learned from 10 years of funding grassroots groups.

The learning agenda of the Firelight Foundation is designed to help drive more resources to grassroots organizations supporting children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. In our conversation, Peter Laugharn, executive director of the foundation, shares how the agenda was built collaboratively with input from key stakeholders. The process centered around five questions that cull the knowledge of staff and local partners about what community-based organizations are doing and how they are doing it.

IMPACT Article, Summer 2010

GEO ASKS Peter Laugharn of the Firelight Foundation

This month GEO ASKS Peter Laugharn, executive director of the Firelight Foundation about organizational learning. The foundation’s mission is to improve the well-being of children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS and poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. It supports grassroots organizations that help families and communities meet the needs of their children. The foundation has recently developed an organization-wide learning agenda to better support the capacity development of its grantee partners, and to better inform other funders about the critical importance of community organizations to children’s well-being.

GEO ASKS: What motivated you to seek a learning agenda for the foundation?

We believe that having a learning agenda will help our grantee partners grow, and will help other funders understand the importance of getting resources to the grassroots.

Family and community members serve as the frontline for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. Ninety percent of the support these children receive comes from people they see, from face-to-face interactions, not from national governments, nor from international assistance.  Thus we believe that supporting community-based organizations and helping them grow is a vitally important contribution to children’s well-being.   To this end, we give small ($10,000-$15,000) grants for local CBOs to solve the problems they are identifying and experiencing on the ground.

Beyond direct support to CBOs, we have wanted to leverage what we know to inform and persuade larger funders.  The Firelight Foundation makes around $2 million in grants every year, so we are a modest-sized funder in the field of those supporting children affected by AIDS.  The U.S. government contributes $1 billion a year, and the U.S. faith-based community also makes a significant collective contribution.  But Firelight knows a lot about grassroots responses and what makes them effective, and we have a lot of curiosity about many aspects of community action.  We feel we can use what we know and what we learn to help other larger funders invest well.  We can help them make intelligent choices about which local partners to select and ultimately drive more resources to the grassroots.

Some funders perceive a higher risk in supporting African community-based organizations directly, and prefer to fund U.S.-based nonprofits, but Firelight has found that funding community-based organizations is not risky if done correctly. Supporting the grassroots directly allows donor resources to stretch further, since donor resources are not routed through several layers of government and nongovernment entities before it reaches the ground.  Direct support also helps CBOs deliver more and better services to children, innovate in their work and build local communities. Our learning agenda is intended to provide concrete information about what community-based organizations are doing and how they are doing it.

Along the spectrum of responsive to proactive grantmaking, we consider ourselves a responsive funder because we believe in local solutions for local problems. We ask that organizations show that they are well rooted in a community and well managed, we ask them to identify the most important local problems and to propose solutions, and we fund those solutions.  This means that we end up funding a wide variety of activities, which in turn means that it is difficult to define outputs and outcomes in advance.  It requires a degree of skill and insight to discern the patterns, trends and lessons within the grant portfolio.  The learning agenda helps us develop that skill and insight.

GEO ASKS: What process did you use in developing and establishing the learning agenda? Who were the key players?

The Firelight Foundation’s learning agenda arose out of the strategic planning process we launched in 2008. During this process we worked to strengthen our four core programmatic areas: 1) Grantmaking; 2) Capacity building; 3) Organizational learning; and 4) Communications and advocacy.

We identified two main objectives for the organizational learning area: 1) Continuous improvement of our own and our partners’ programs; and 2) Leveraging our experiences and knowledge to drive more resources to the grassroots. We knew that in order to give this area a set of sturdy and functional legs, we would need to establish a learning agenda with specific questions that we would all remember and use.

We asked as many people as we could for the questions they thought we should include. We took into account a stakeholder survey that had been conducted about what the foundation was doing well and where. Our grantees were interviewed by a third party about their needs and interests; our donors were consulted about what they cared about.

From all of these conversations and with the help of a long-term consultant, we developed a long laundry list of possible questions.   These questions had to be broad enough to take in the variety of relationships and funded activities, but focused enough to provide useful, structured information. Everyone had favorite questions, so it was a challenge to narrow, but we were subsequently able to identify 20 or so questions that seemed to fit the bill. Our leadership took those 20 questions and narrowed even further, and we all agreed to the five questions we have in our learning agenda today.

GEO ASKS: What is now included in your learning agenda? What do you hope it will accomplish for the foundation?

In order to meet our organizational learning goals of continuous improvement and driving resources to the grassroots, the Firelight Foundation adopted five questions to guide our learning agenda:

1. What do CBOs choose to do to promote child well-being, and why do they do it?

2. How do CBOs do their work?

3. What is the effect of CBOs’ work?

4. Based on the responses to the first three questions, what seems to be the optimal “division of labor” among CBOs, government, and other actors?

5. Based on the responses to the first four questions, what are the best ways to support and strengthen CBOs?

These questions serve to structure our learning and help us articulate what we know about community-based organizations and the support they provide to children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

We use the answers to these questions to drive two different feedback loops into our work:

• Informing programming — by identifying which criteria make a successful CBO partner or partnership, as well as the capacity-building needs of our partners.

• Informing external audiences — including governments, foundations who aren’t yet funding programs for children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS and the faith-based community. We are able to leverage the five questions to make the case to different groups in their own languages that it is safe and effective to fund community-based organizations.

GEO ASKS: What challenges did you encounter along the way?

Firelight is committed to responding to locally identified priorities, rather than prescribing goals and solutions ourselves.  This creates challenges when we try to look at the whole portfolio of partnerships and draw lessons from it.  Different communities have different ideas about how to support children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. It is a challenge to be both responsive and strategic at the same time.

The five guiding questions of our learning agenda were necessarily broad, since they need to overlay a wide variety of activities and contexts.  We have put considerable effort into thinking through how to efficiently gather a range of information to answer these questions.  We’ve sought to rearrange proposal and report formats so that our CBO partners are prompted to give us information relevant to that set of questions.  We realize that proposals and reports are not perfect instruments for learning, since they are produced for other purposes and there will always be challenges in getting frank and unvarnished accounts into donor correspondence.  On the other hand, we, like other grantmakers, collect 3,000 or so pages of grantee partner reporting every year, and we feel that analyzing and reflecting on this information thoroughly is much better than leaving it in a file cabinet.

We have also faced some challenges in establishing good methods for gathering and analyzing data. We have given considerable thought, for example, to the best translation of learning question 2 (“how do CBOs do their work?”) into a set of specific questions that describe the range of activities we’ve witnessed (influencing household behavior, directly providing services, organizing community activism, etc.), and we are currently testing these out.  We are trying to build analysis frameworks inductively, as we go. For example, we are now able to categorize our partner CBOs into three capacity levels: emerging, expanding or established. We began by seeing trends in the information we received through our five key questions and then were able to define these levels and corresponding characteristics and dimensions.

The foundation has received constructive criticism from stakeholders along the way. Some people just want numbers or are skeptical of qualitative data. We agree that numbers are good and useful.  We do collect a lot of quantitative data, and some of it is pointing us in interesting directions.  But we also think that a lot of what is most important in our learning agenda will come from reviewing a lot of qualitative data, finding the meaningful patterns, and trying to convert these into variables and indicators. Since we are working with grassroots organizations that often have nascent data-collection systems, ensuring consistency across activities and across regions is a challenge. And, because our grants are small in size, it is not realistic to impose rigorous evaluation mechanisms on our partner CBOs. Plus there is the challenge of identifying and comparing the different activities on the ground. But we feel that it’s very much worth the effort.

We’ve only recently established the learning agenda, so having good information about the long-term changes in communities is not yet possible.  We are working to establish predictors of children’s future well-being and other indicators of impact, and identifying partners that can support us in developing long-term impact studies.

GEO ASKS: What advice would you give to other organizations seeking to define a learning agenda for their work?

I’d start out by suggesting that grantmakers keep in mind that a learning agenda can be very different for different organizations. At its core, an effective learning agenda will always take into account what the grantmaker wants to accomplish with its programs, its grantmaking model and the needs and capacity of its grantees.

Resolve to do more than just tacking on a “lessons learned” section to the end of a program report. You will get more out of that type of reflection if it is the first thing you do and if you continue to do it as your work progresses. I’ve found it most useful to dispense with the lessons that are common sense or things we already know to hone in on what is useful for our foundation moving forward.

On a personal level, I am convinced that foundations who seek to learn and share with others are best positioned to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities. And, unless grantmakers have a structured learning agenda within the organization, they might have a wish to learn, but no tools to do so.

Establishing a learning agenda is not simple, but it’s a lot of fun. I’d encourage any grantmaker to do it. I’d also say to grantmakers who are looking to establish a learning agenda: be clear about what it is you want to learn. And, be specific.