Learning and the Value of Questions for Philanthropy

Posted on July 27, 2011 by Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation

By Robert Hughes, The Patterson Foundation Learning Partner

In early June, I attended Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s Learning Conference in Baltimore. Throughout the conference, I found it uncanny how many of the ideas and themes connected directly with the experiences and aims of The Patterson Foundation.

That shouldn’t surprise me as learning and sharing permeates The Patterson Foundation’s (TPF) activity. Repeatedly, presenters posed insightful questions that brought to light many connections between TPF’s work and the conference topics.

I recall a mentor of mine telling me that questions are a lot more important than answers, and I found this true at the conference, with questions at the center of many stimulating sessions.

A prominent example was Eugene Eric Kim’s excellent opening presentation: “Achieving Collective Intelligence: A Thinker’s Guide on Why We Need to Think Less”. The questions Kim raised in the course of his remarks about the collective intelligence of philanthropy are worth repeating:

•   Is philanthropy maximizing its own collective intelligence?

•   Is there shared, delightful space in which to connect and work?

•   Is there space designed to encourage emergence?

•   Are there rapid feedback loops of action and learning?

•   Is the collective adapting quickly and skillfully to change?

•   How aggressively are you giving away your knowledge?

Thinking of The Patterson Foundation in particular, I found that these questions aligned well with its aims. TPF aims to catalyze philanthropy well beyond its own activities, and aims to create a shared, delightful space to connect and work.

Indeed, the foundation even uses the phrase “connective tissue” to describe its work. And its commitment to learning - with emphasis on emergence, feedback, and adaptation - is manifest in a willingness to embrace failure and see it as an important source of knowledge in its initial activities.

TPF emphasizes communications, including a charge to share lessons broadly, although it is still early in the foundation’s history to have a wealth of knowledge to share.

The Patterson Foundation is relatively new, with less than two years of experience under its belt, so it is premature to assess its contributions to the answers for Kim’s questions. Many other foundations are striving to help the field produce a more positive set of answers to Kim’s questions. TPF's capacity to work with others to create new answers remains a work in progress, but by addressing these important questions it is off to a good start on its journey.

So how does this apply to the broader field of philanthropy?

With every question, I found myself thinking more about aspirations and potential, and less about examples and accomplishments. Philanthropy’s collective intelligence is far from maximized; much remains locked in people’s memories, or preserved in organizational silos.  Even the mention of the phrase “delightful space in which to connect and work” brought wry smiles to many in the audience, followed by a wistful sense that, indeed, that would be desirable (along with puzzlement about why, given the privilege of working in philanthropy, it is not the norm).

Certainly, some space in philanthropy exists for emergence, but pressures for clear measurement and demonstrated impact on the one hand and for support of existing organizational capacity on the other crowd out much of this space.  (Arguably, providing opportunities for emergence should be a leading institutional role for philanthropy in society.)

Few would argue with the lack of rapid feedback loops for action and learning across philanthropy, and hence the inability of the collective to adapt quickly and skillfully.  On giving away knowledge, the field is making genuine efforts and progress (a good example Kim noted is by the Packard Foundation’s organizational effectiveness team), but much remains to be done.


  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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