Foundations are famous for the checks they write. But in addressing a broad swath of critical societal and environmental issues, a foundation’s issue-specific knowledge can be as, if not more, valuable.

Regardless of how your organization measures success, getting strategic about how you organize and redistribute knowledge can help just about anyone achieve their goals more efficiently. It starts with getting a handle on what you know and, importantly, what you don’t know about your chosen fields of interest, and then understanding the drivers behind that split.

Given our diverse programs at McKnight Foundation and 60 years of partnerships in Minnesota and around the world, we often find ourselves at the center of meaty, data-rich, analytic conversations. This week, we released a case study summarizing our yearlong exploration and planning around knowledge management. The onslaught of data rushing into us takes the form of grant reports, field research, partner convenings, and much more—and to be responsible stewards of our resources, we must ensure that we make best use of it all. Our brief study shares some big takeaways, and describes the framework and activities that guided our discussions.

Aiming to reach beyond brainstorming and sharing insights, we budgeted concrete time and created opportunities for intentional analysis of findings by individuals, work teams, and our full staff. We learned:

  • The benefit of process. The majority of staff believe we’re in better shape today simply because we explored the nitty-gritty details of knowledge management. Discussions engaged everyone in identifying both bright spots and areas for improvement.
  • That existing tools can do more if we work smarter. Initially, many hoped for one stellar software program to streamline workloads and tie together McKnight’s organization-wide knowledge base. Now most of us feel that we already have a strong set of tools for managing and sharing information—we just need to use them more effectively and strategically.
  • How much we stand to learn from grantees and partners. With more than 1,000 active grants, 600-plus grantees, and countless program peers worldwide, our access to useful knowledge is not in question. Our challenge is to harness, organize, and deploy it.
  • That one size does not fit all. Each organization is different. We’d love to take lightning-quick action on all incoming intelligence but recognize that our business approach sometimes limits our ability to act swiftly. Our core capacity is tied to due diligence and grantmaking, so our optimal use of broader program knowledge may require a longer time horizon.
  • To look for opportunities and develop tools as needed. A big discovery for us was how much information we’re already sitting on, from lots of different sources. We need to keep a vigilant eye on emerging knowledge tools, and make time to consume, discuss, and analyze data so that we can make better decisions about what to use, what to store, and what to toss.

Once we better understood our assets and our gaps, we started making changes.

In-house, we’ve adopted or strengthened several tools to help enhance efficiencies and decisionmaking, including improving our intranet and using communications tools like Yammer, improving project workflows, and encouraging robust staff discussions modeled after our knowledge-related exploration. We want to create powerful, ongoing opportunities to learn from our whole staff, while building shared language and culture.

When it comes to external knowledge sharing, the opportunities are even greater. Increasingly, we’re posting program-specific reports and evaluations online. As we continue to commission independent research to help our own staff understand the context in which we operate, we work harder now to get the timely, useful findings into the in-boxes of others beyond our walls. A wealth of staff voices and perspectives now contribute to our foundationwide blog, and we’ve begun dipping into video to capture program knowledge and perspectives visually. To increase transparency and engagement, we continue to share results from grantee perception surveys, including our commitments to improve our work with grantees. And we’re increasingly developing organization-wide understanding of social media and other emerging tools, providing guidelines and training both in groups and one on one.

As with any organization, our path forward will depend on defining and supporting the best organizational culture, policies, training, and tools to share knowledge gleaned through our work and relationships. At my organization, we can do that more intentionally today only because we first made time to discuss what we know and what we need to know, and to consider deeply what kind of organization we need to be to truly embrace our mission.

Our discussions over time have helped develop knowledge-supportive language and culture, and nothing trumps culture for making change stick. Once we asked and answered some good questions, gaps became clearer—and we hope that getting a sharper, collective sense of where we are and where we want to go will help us stay focused on the road we’ve mapped out together.