The Learning Network's Learning Work: Lessons From Baltimore

August 10, 2015

Nicole Neroulias Gupte, Communications Manager

As a learning network, Philanthropy Northwest believes in sharing best practices, convening and collaborating effectively to support our members, partners and communities. Last month, it was our turn: eight members of our team traveled to Baltimore, Md. for the annual conference of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, where we met with our peers from dozens of philanthropy networks and affinity groups working with foundations, corporate giving programs, major donors, impact investors and policymakers to build capacity locally, regionally and nationally.

At the opening reception at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, "Seattle Jeff" Clarke made good on our Super Bowl bet against "Boston Jeff" Poulos of Associated Grant Makers — in the form of a rain globe and some dry (dare I say "deflated?") humor — only to be richly rewarded at the end of the conference with a raffle prize basket filled with local goodies from the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. Seahawks-Ravens Super Bowl SLX?

In between, our team helped lead rich discussions on executive leadership, diversity/equity/inclusion, impact investing, data analysis and social media. Here are some of our takeaways:

Nicole Neroulias Gupte, Communications Manager

I joined Philanthropy Northwest last fall, so this was my first trip to the Forum conference. I found it incredibly helpful to connect with my counterparts from other regions, comparing notes and exchanging tips related to our blogs, social media and e-bulletins — and to continue these conversations via phone, email and Twitter now that we're all thousands of miles apart again. Lots of excitement about strategically promoting the good work of our members and partners, and brainstorming new ideas with my new friends from the Council of Michigan Foundations, Philanthropy New York and the rest of the country.

More broadly, the sessions related to diversity, equity and inclusion gave me a lot to think about, including how we can facilitate challenging conversations about race, economic and social justice in our communities. David Grant, author of "The Social Profit Handbook," led us through the Stephen Covey matrix for classifying our work: important vs. not important, urgent vs. not urgent. The best way to ensure that we respond effectively is to do the important work now — before it becomes urgent. As we continue to incorporate our commitment to DEI in our programs and resource library, I will continue to reflect on how we can communicate about this more effectively as an organization and network.

Audrey Haberman, Managing Partner, The Giving Practice

Mark Sedway and I facilitated the daylong retreat with the leaders of nearly three dozen foundation networks from around the country. We started by asking them what image came to mind as they thought about their experience as CEOs. The images — library shelves, an octopus, a box of Legos, a compass — all reflected their wide ranging of roles which require serious multitasking. What came through this opening and the rest of the day for me was an inspirational commitment to the field. One after another, the leaders talked about their desires to support their members while also leading them, provide important content about issues and trends, encourage collaboration and action, be on top of local and national policy issues, address equity and inclusion and more. These CEOs have approached their work with grace, humility and humor, and it was a fantastic way to learn from Philanthropy Northwest’s peers.

Kristen Holway, Senior Manager, Learning Practice

I went to the conference with one goal: listen intentionally. It’s easy to work with your head down and not come up for reflection. Having the space to share stories, practices, and lessons with my peers will absolutely impact my approach to developing new training programs — and revamping existing offerings.

When my panel was preparing our session on philanthropy data and trends, we started with one question: What would success look like? Our answers:

  • Leave with a list of people I should follow up with.
  • Uncover as many diverse opportunities as possible and feel that I can both connect with and be useful to others.
  • Leave with a sense of what more I can do, and better define the promise of this work for my own organization.
  • Leave with a sense of excitement and give the audience a sense that there is a spectrum of possibility.
  • Have the audience come away with new ideas and a list of questions they need to ask themselves to make this work a reality.

It became very apparent that if we wanted to achieve these outcomes, we would have to heavily engage the audience and make them “honorary” panelists. So, we adapted our original notion of what a panel should be and created a space for open conversation. I think it worked; it’s not easy to talk about data in the late afternoon!

My other takeaway: Don’t go it alone. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of “good ideas” for programming and “emerging best practices” for member engagement, but in all likelihood, one of your peers has already wrestled with similar questions.

Ann Saxton, Vice President

For someone new to both the social sector in general and regional networks in particular, this was a wonderful opportunity to learn and share best practices and challenges with our peers from across the nation: discussing needs, developments and practices outside our region and using this information and these conversations to inform our work in providing value to our network.

I was also thrilled to meet David Grant, author of "The Social Profit Handbook" and a plenary speaker on the subject of formative/non-quantitative assessment. Evaluation and impact measurement are so often presumed to be reflected in numbers while much of what the social sector does is better measured with words. My team and I are on the path to incorporate this methodology, using rubrics, in our work.

Additional Reflections from Attendees

Thanks to the amazing team at the Forum — Mary, Courtney, Val, Dan (congrats on the new baby!) and Erin — to our local hosts at the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers and to our regional association peers and affinity group representatives for a valuable learning experience! See you next year.