Philanthropy Northwest

Build. Connect. Inspire.

The Art and Science of Designing Peer Learning Cohorts

The Art and Science of Designing Peer Learning Cohorts

April 28, 2016

When The Giving Practice at Philanthropy Northwest partnered with the D5 Coalition in 2012 to study and report on the ways philanthropic leaders were advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, one of our most significant findings was that leaders need support from peer networks to advance this work.

Four years later, through our ongoing work facilitating peer cohorts, we continue to witness how peer learning can be one of the most powerful ways to influence leadership and cultural change within organizations. In confidential, trust-based environments, leaders serve as co-consultants to one another, offering advice, knowledge and sympathetic ears. Again and again, we have seen leaders come together to gather the courage to make meaningful advances in policy, practice and organizational change.

Many people have asked us to share information about how we design these cohorts to create environments where leaders continue to stay engaged and move to action. Our approach uses six key principles for creating and facilitating these groups, particularly for cohorts designed around diversity, equity and inclusion. While much of this may read as basic facilitation strategies, we have learned that this is more of an art than a science — and it often takes a few meetings before groups begin to develop their own rhythm and cohesion.

Our Approach to Designing Peer Learning Cohorts

  1. Create a cohort group that is diverse across several dimensions. We aim to include a range of demographics (age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation); foundation sizes and types (community, private, family) and varied experience with the topic (self-identified advanced practitioners to beginners). All of our cohorts have been invitation-only to ensure that group members reflect this diversity and also possess the interpersonal skills and curiosity necessary for a successful cohort experience. Until now, our cohorts have primarily focused on leaders who are in the same role (for example, CEOs and executive directors).
  2. Begin by listening to group members to understand their interest and experience. Prior to the first meeting of each cohort, we conduct brief, confidential interviews with our prospective members to learn more about them personally, their points of view on the topic at hand, as well as to get a better understanding of how a cohort would be beneficial to them. We call this process "Discovery," and it allows us to design the first meeting knowing what will be relevant and top-of-mind for the group, and to develop group expectations regarding required attendance at meetings, confidentiality and respect.
  3. Structure agendas loosely and don’t be afraid to flex in real-time. To ensure we are co-creating with the group throughout the process, we develop a very lightly structured agenda that allows for exploration of relevant issues and trends. Our goal is to create a space where group members are invited to share, be vulnerable and express themselves candidly, but also to allow the group to own this space quickly and begin to define the content and themes. We believe in allowing the wisdom of the group to guide the content development, and at times, it may feel like group members instinctively desire more structure. There is always a balance to strike between providing content ahead of time and allowing it to develop organically within the group. 
  4. Focus on storytelling, sharing and problem-solving exercises. In order to accomplish #3, we begin each cohort with a round-robin exercise where every member must share a personal/professional story related to the cohort's theme. For example, in our cohorts dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we ask members to share, in 10 minutes or less, a story of their own journey towards greater diversity, equity and inclusion at their organization. By asking everyone to begin with stories, we accomplish several things:
    —First, this process allows the group to become acquainted with one another quickly, and sets a baseline so that everyone has contributed their voice to the conversation.
    —Second, it allows group participants to model vulnerability, openness, and candor at the beginning- skills which will be required throughout the cohort process.
    —Finally, it allows the facilitators to build on these stories through the rest of the meetings, as common themes and threads will inevitably tie these stories together. We often use structured peer problem solving techniques as a primary way to allow group members to get the support and advice they need from one another.
  5. Pay attention to group dynamics, engagement and cohesion during and between sessions. At times, we find some group members are more engaged than others. While this is inevitable, we try to ensure that all members stay engaged by talking with everyone prior to our in-person meetings, and addressing any issues that arise. For example, during our personal interviews, we ask to make sure that they felt comfortable speaking their minds, even if they know another member in the group. We would also ensure that every member has the opportunity to speak at every meeting. We view our role as the “glue” of the group — facilitators who can hold the space or “container” lightly and create an environment that fosters a dynamic exchange of ideas and support.
  6. Always begin and end by checking in. No matter how long groups have been together, we have found that the check-in and the check-out at the beginning and end of meetings is one of the most critical parts of the structure. We usually start the day with an extended check-in, which allows people to settle into the space and mindset of a cohort environment. Leaders are used to arriving at meetings and having to be “on” immediately; the relaxed check-in offers a chance to create an environment of reflection and a slower pace. Check-ins also help facilitators be ready to pivot the agenda based on something raised that has resonated with the group. Similarly, the check-out is a time we reserve at the end of the day — critical because after sharing vulnerabilities, it's important to let everyone contribute one last thought or reflection before leaving. This creates a space where individuals can deepen their connections and express appreciation for one another.
Sindhu Knotz (left) leading a conversation with members from our first CEO cohort on DEI, in 2014: Doug Stamm of Meyer Memorial Trust, Richard Woo of The Russell Family Foundation, Kris Hermanns of Pride Foundation, Max Williams of Oregon Community Foundation, Susan Anderson of The CIRI Foundation, Kelly Brown of D5 Coalition and Luz Vega-Marquis of Marguerite Casey Foundation. Not pictured: Denis Hayes of Bullitt Foundation, Diane Kaplan of Rasmuson Foundation, Norman Rice of Seattle Foundation, Liz Vivian of Women's Funding Alliance.

Exploration Continues

The Giving Practice is excited to continue our work with peer cohorts and share what we are learning. We know these cohorts can lead to action and impact — for example, our Momentum Fellowship was created by members of our first CEO cohort on diversity, equity and inclusion. Since then, Philanthropy Northwest has begun launching peer learning cohorts on other topics, including women’s leadership, as we continue to explore how cohorts vary across types of issues and leadership levels. Until now, our cohorts have primarily focused on CEO or executive directors, but we are also exploring cohorts at the trustee level or senior leadership level.

Which practices have you found helpful for your own peer cohorts? We invite you to share your ideas and suggestions with our team.

Sindhu Knotz is a partner with The Giving Practice, Philanthropy Northwest's consulting team. She can be reached at