Many have argued that funders often work within a framework of isolated impact, reviewing proposals for funding in a vacuum and evaluating success based on the impact of individual organizations as opposed to that of systems. The fact is that even when funders bring organizations together into communities of learning, groups of like-minded organizations that meet at regular intervals to discuss shared challenges and opportunities in their field, they are carefully curating those communities: They review proposals in a specific program area or for impact on a case-by-case basis, determine which proposals to fund, and bring select grantee organizations together to build knowledge. Even as discourse about the inherent power dynamics in a funder-grantee relationship grows in grantmaking circles, funders perpetuate this lopsided relationship through communities of learning wholly envisioned and executed by the foundation or corporate funder.

In 2013, Microsoft partnered with Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) to try a new model. What would happen if, instead of reviewing proposals and organizations in a vacuum, we reviewed them through the lens of collective impact? What would happen if, instead of leading a top-down approach to create communities of learning, we engaged organizations in the creation process? Would participating organizations continue working with their communities of learning long after financial incentives and support ended?

With these questions in mind, Microsoft and SVCF designed a new grantmaking strategy for the Microsoft 2014 YouthSpark grants program in Silicon Valley. We would ask organizations to identify their own preferred cohort partners and review proposals on both individual impact and impact on the field. Providing minimal direction on cohort structure and composition empowered organizations to think creatively about their preferred community of learning. The only requirement was that each organization should offer programs aligned with Microsoft’s YouthSpark strategy: empowering youth through technology.

Risks and Challenges

There were inherent risks to this new approach. We risked potentially alienating smaller organizations in our community who were used to applying to our open, competitive program. We had to ensure that long-time partners and national Microsoft grantees did not have an advantage—or disadvantage—during the review process. And, with a budget for only one cohort but applications for more than 20 proposed cohorts, the decision-making process proved especially grueling for the review committee.

Representatives from the Microsoft Silicon Valley Community of Learning participate in a panel presentation on “Girls in Tech” at the Innovation Forum. (Photo by Thea Nilsson, Microsoft)

But in the end, Microsoft’s 2014 YouthSpark Grant Cohort came together. It includes four organizations focused on cultivating and empowering girls in science, technology, engineering, and math: Technovation , TechGyrls, Maker Education Initiative, and The Tech Museum of Innovation. The organizations have attended two learning meetings to date, and in November 2014, their collaboration was featured at the Innovation Forum, hosted by Microsoft and Full Circle Fund.

Capacity-Building Through Learning Communities

One of the most valuable outcomes of the cohort has been the opportunity for cross-organizational capacity-building—a benefit that drives many foundations to integrate communities of learning into their grantmaking strategies. A 2012 report by NYC Wagner Research Center for Leadership in Action and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), titled “The Power of Learning: How Learning Communities Amplify the Work of Nonprofits and Grantmakers,” shares the results of a study on six US communities of learning, noting that communities were “instrumental in building knowledge both for the community itself and the field more generally.” Engaging organizations in a community of learning creates the space for nonprofit participants to share best practices and common challenges—information the participants can leverage to improve their own operations and the field as a whole.

The Out-of-School Time Funder Collaborative—co-funded by the Sand Hill Foundation, Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2), the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Sobrato Family Foundation—provides a strong case study on how communities of learning build organizational capacity. An external evaluation of the program, which focused on building organizational capacity through a community of learning between July 2010 and July 2013, reported successful outcomes. By the end of the third year of the program, grantees collectively served 27 percent more students than they did at the start of the initiative.

As an intermediary participant in the Community Leadership Project (CLP), a project of the Hewlett, Packard and Irvine Foundations, SVCF has turned to a community of learning model as it works to improve organizational capacity of small- and medium-size nonprofit organizations serving low-income people and communities of color in the San Francisco Bay Area. Organizations meet quarterly to discuss shared regional challenges and brainstorm effective, long-term solutions. SVCF Director of Initiatives Mauricio Palma believes that as a result, SVCF can facilitate a regional discussion on the most innovative solutions to challenges in the field, instead of focusing on issues specific to an individual organization.

Beyond supporting new innovations, foundations can also leverage learning cohorts to advance their own understanding of important issues in their field of interest. The Bush Foundation recently launched the Community Creativity Cohort as a way to advance its understanding of challenges that arts organizations face. By engaging with leading nonprofit organizations in this way, foundation staff can gain valuable insight into arts education and engagement, and apply that insight to future programs.

Best Practices

Here are some best practices—drawn from SVCF’s experiences—for creating and launching a community of learning with maximum community impact:

  1. Engage organizations in the creation process. Consulting with organizations during cohort creation ensures that participating organization have a shared ownership of the project’s success.
  2. Ensure that participating organizations are diverse in their organizational structure and programs. While organizations may have a common focus or vision, diversity allows different members to contribute unique expertise to the group.
  3. Support learning communities on topics that members already work on. The NYU Wagner and GEO research mentioned above also indicates that participants get the most value from communities of learning that advance work already in progress, instead of new collaborative projects.
  4. Understand the time requirements and provide appropriate funding to the participating organizations. Communities of learning are most successful when they are multi-year efforts, so it’s best to ensure that appropriate incentives and infrastructure are in place before launching a new model.
  5. Be fluid and adaptable. It is imperative to be flexible when approaching these programs; strategies will shift as grantees develop relationships with each other and the funder(s), and as new ideas come to light.
  6. Set aside funding for new ideas and initiatives. As the learning community progresses, innovative ideas to address common challenges will develop. Having a bit of seed funding available to support pilot concepts is a great way to deepen your engagement as a funder.

Given the capacity and knowledge-building opportunities that communities of learning provide, it isn’t surprising that this trend is gaining momentum within corporate, community, family, and institutional foundations. However, as more funders embrace communities of learning as a model for addressing systems-level issues, it is imperative that nonprofit organizations are engaged in the design and implementation process. Doing so will maximize shared ownership and participant buy-in, increasing the likelihood of a continued community of learning and innovation, long after financial incentives have ended.