Learning and Adapting Better in Today's Rapidly Changing Landscape

August 2, 2010

I focused last week on a couple of the ways that funders can begin to “act bigger” in today’s more networked and interconnected landscape for public problem solving. But I want to also give a quick preview of the other major way in which we believe funders will need to improve over the coming decade: “adapting better.”
Adapting better is critical because even if funders begin to act bigger, mistakes made at a grand and ambitious scale are still mistakes. Funders will need to get better at developing judgment based on the best evidence available, and then try to learn and adjust rapidly as they go.
Grantmakers can no longer assume that they occupy a safe and quite haven where people are given the benefit of the doubt simply because they are doing charitable work. As a New York Times headline proclaimed a number of years ago, the public is now “asking do-gooders to prove they do good.”
Much progress has been made in recent years in measuring the impact of philanthropic efforts. But we must also guard against the temptation of false precision and setting simplistic proxies for impact just because they can be easily measured, even if they miss the mark in assessing real progress on complicated social problems.
Further complicating matters is that in today’s rapidly changing landscape, it often no longer makes sense to develop strategy using purely linear approaches: identifying a problem, formulating a theory of action, and executing a clear plan. Nuanced theories of change and the resulting strategic plans can be out of date almost as soon as they’re printed. I think of it as being like steering a boat: if you lash the rudder in place, by the time you get to your destination, the tide, wind, and current are going to have shifted you far off course from your ultimate goal, which itself may even have shifted while you were en route. To succeed in today’s dynamic environment, funders will need to improve their ability to learn, shift, and adapt to keep their efforts headed in the right direction.
On this subject, I think we can learn a huge amount from the design world and what it’s discovered over the last decade or two about rapid prototyping. How can we get more quickly into trying, testing, getting feedback, and iterating? How can we fail early and learn from it, before it’s too costly to change direction? And how can we make sure that don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good along the way?
Luckily, we now operate in an environment that facilitates near immediate feedback and the rapid transfer of knowledge. New technologies allow us to share information and gather input in real time, more easily and cheaply than ever before. And the question for the coming decade is whether we can use these new tools to share what we know and do, get feedback quickly, and then be ready to act on what we (and others) learn in ways that allow the field to have a meaningful impact on public problems.
In What’s Next for Philanthropy, we highlight five key behaviors can help funders get smarter faster and operate and adapt at a speed that is equal to the rate of change in the world around them:

  1. Know what works (and what doesn’t). Effective funders will develop systems to learn from their successes, and their failures, in ways that can help everyone—funders and grantees alike—develop the judgment to guide and improve efforts in the future.
  2. Keep pace with change. As the speed of change accelerates around us, funders will need to build feedback loops that help them change and shift behavior based on dynamic realities and lessons learned in real time.
  3. Open up to new inputs. New tools and approaches now allow funders to solicit points of view from diverse cultures and perspectives, to access new and wildcard ideas, and to get buy-in and engagement from stakeholders.
  4. Share by default. In a more crowded playing field, there is tremendous value in reflecting on your work and conveying your lessons to others. It makes sense to start from a place of sharing everything and then make a few exceptions, rather than a place of sharing little where transparency is the exception.
  5. Take smart risks. The most effective funders will recognize when innovation is necessary, and will be willing to make high-risk, high-reward bets that have the potential to create transformative change.

I don’t have space to dive more deeply into each of these approaches here, but you can learn more about each in the report, and I believe that my colleague Barbara Kibbe will be writing more about these different strategies here at the Intrepid Philanthropist at the end of the summer.

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Gabriel Kasper


Oct 05

Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation