I co-presented a session workshop – “Becoming a Learning Organization” – with Brian Talcott of the Center for Civic Partnerships (CCP) at The California Wellness Foundation’s (TCWF) conference on Organizational Learning and Evaluation in San Francisco last week.
Brian and I worked together when Exhale received TCWF-funded technical assistance from CCP back in 2006 and 2007. With their support, Exhale was able to ratchet-up our evaluation practices and by working with top-notch evaluation experts, we began to consider methods and tools to measure Exhale’s impact on our culture change goals.
One of the many gifts we received through the program was learning that Exhale was, and always has been, a Learning Organization. Here’s the theory:
According to LFA Group, a Learning Organization “uses evaluation as a fundamental strategy for gathering information for reflection, learning and growth in order to drive internal improvement.”
Michael O’Brien, an organizational consultant says that Learning Organizations “weave a continuous and enhanced capacity to learn, adapt and change into the fabric of its character and has values, policies, practices, programs, systems and structures that support and accelerate organizational learning.”
As the leader of Exhale, I have found becoming a Learning Organization to be very freeing.
Accepting the identity and practices of being a Learning Organization took off some of the pressure to be a perfect organization that creates perfect results because this is impossible. As an entrepreneurial, risk-taking organization, Exhale needs to be able to take chances with our strategies. We don’t want to play it safe, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t focused or purposeful or mission-minded. It just means that we understand that sometimes we can only learn by doing.
Being a Learning Organization creates a container and gives structure for our organization to learn, adapt, change and grow collectively. The framework of a Learning Organization allows Exhale to try new things that will help us be more effective at our social change mission. It doesn’t change the “what” – our goals and mission – it changes the “how” we get there.
I believe that all organizations – and movements – need to learn in order to survive.
We have to learn because learning is what gives us the evidence and the information we need to adapt and make change. As organizations, we must investigate ourselves, our beliefs, our practices and our strategies to surface new information, new wisdom, and new ideas that will help us strengthen what works and help us be at our best.
We are in tough times. Many organizations, including Exhale, are watching our revenue go down and the demand for our services go up. We can see that old models of fundraising are not having the same results they once did, but the new models have yet to prove themselves. We are doing more with less.
At the same time, the structures of our world are changing. Social media is not just a fad or a new tool to adapt to old style marketing or communications or fundraising. It’s creating fundamental changes in the way we connect, communicate, and build relationships. It changes the way we organize, the way we fundraise, the way we grow our movements. According to Jon Husband, we have to respond to these changes by “adapting on a continuous basis, to an environment that keeps changing based on real-time feedback.”
Evaluation is not just something that organizations have to do because funders want us to. It’s not just hiring a firm and reviewing results 12-months later. It’s not just reading an assessment tool and building a new curriculum module in response to member feedback.
Nonprofits, if they aren’t already, will soon be dealing with feedback 24-hours a day, 7-days a week. What are people saying about your service on Twitter? Who has written a review of your program on Yelp? What’s your protocol for responding to others writing about your organization’s mission and practices in blogs?
The impact of social media on nonprofits will be so much more than the growth of new tools to get the word out. Our organizations, our leaders, members, advocates, ambassadors, volunteers, clients and patients are now able to communicate with each other, and, they are communicating about us. To address this major change in how nonprofits have typically operated, we need organizational cultures and systems that support our ability to respond to feedback and foster engagement – all the time and continuously. For forever.
If Southwest was your nonprofit and Kevin Smith your client – how would you respond? If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you better read the link.
Being a Learning Organization is the perfect tool for dealing with the challenges our sector is facing.
Our learning is what will lead our organizations to mission success. You cannot be a learning organization without making changes based off what you learned. If your organizational culture resists adapting and change, then it risks its future. It risks failure.
In our presentation at the conference last week, I offered up Exhale as a case-study and invited the participants to help Exhale think about our future learning. I used our Volunteer Program as an example of how Exhale has continuously adapted and changed over time in order to get to our goals, and to great success (we won an award for excellence in nonprofit volunteer management last year).
But, we are certainly not done. There is more to learn. We can be better.
As we move forward, Exhale is seeking to figure out how to bridge our volunteer program with our goal of building a base of pro-voice ambassadors. At the end of my presentation, I turned our learning over to the room, which was filled with experienced Executive Directors working on a variety of health and wellness issues in California.
I asked our workshop participants: what do you think Exhale needs to learn in order to develop effective strategies that take us towards our goal of abortion peace? Here is some of what they suggested:
- What is Exhale’s challenge? What do we do first?
- How many people (callers) would share their experiences?
- Where are we historically (now)?
- Who are our potential partners?
- What drives demand for Exhale and can volunteers help with this?
- What values can both sides (in the abortion war) get behind?
- How can we engage antagonists in dialogue and do better education for both sides?
- How to transition our volunteer program from “service” to “advocacy”?
- What does our community need most? Services, advocacy or both?
- How to focus on the experience of abortion instead of the act of abortion?
- How to involve volunteers more fully in evaluation?
- How can the volunteer program drive public policy change?
- Can we use social networking to help groups of people to discuss?
- How to make conflict constructive and not destructive?
- Is our mission clear?
- How to teach non-judgment?
- How to build volunteer program into the future?
Too bad our session ran out of time! I walked away reminded by how much there is to learn, how fun it is to learn, and how smart and savvy leaders in the nonprofit sector are. As organizations and leaders we are prepared for what lies ahead. We just have to keep learning.
As nonprofit organizations, the more questions we can ask ourselves, the more new evidence and information we can uncover about how we work, the more we adapt to what we know and the more we engage in learning collectively, the better prepared our organizations will be to achieve our missions.
When we are at our best, we will create the change we seek.