5 Tips for Using Simple Convenings for Intentional Learning

By Kris Putnam-Walkerly, Putnam Consulting Group

This post originally appeared on Putnam Consulting Group’s Philanthropy 411 blog (July 3, 2017). Kris’s tips apply to all types of convenings, whether bringing together funders, grantees, or a mix.

My firm recently helped the David and Lucille Packard Foundation conduct a series of small gatherings of funders to discuss the Foundation’s learnings from a seven-year investment in summer learning. (For more information about that initiative, download the summary report we created, or visit the Foundation’s website.) While the convenings were specific to the summer learning topic, I observed several actions within them that I’d consider best practices for using small group gatherings for intentional learning, no matter what the subject.

1. Keep it casual and comfortable. Each convening was intentionally small—no more than 20 people—which allowed participants to gather around a common table. This fostered a sense of intimacy and a conversational tone. In addition, the Foundation provided a meal, either breakfast or lunch depending on the time of day, and allowed plenty of time for participants to enjoy it without feeling rushed. This also allowed foundation representatives in the room to catch up with old friends and meet new people, further building the sense of camaraderie and conversation.

2. Be clear that it’s a conversation, not a presentation. At the beginning of each gathering, the Packard staff made it clear that they had learned a great deal from listening to other funders, and they were hoping to continue that by having the funders in the room share their reactions and insights on the summer learning work. While the Packard staff did kick off the conversation with a quick overview of their initiative’s strategy, outcomes and lessons learned, the bulk of the agenda was allocated for questions and discussion. In fact, the agenda even included specific smaller one-to-one conversation time in which participants could dive into whatever aspects of the work caught their interest most—after which they shared highlights with the group.

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8 Silo-Smashing Trends in Philanthropy

By Kris Putnam-Walkerly, Putnam Consulting Group

In my work as a philanthropic advisor, I come across philanthropy in all forms—from individual giving to institutional grantmaking and everything in between. It used to be that most of my clients engaged in their work from behind a wall of protection. Charity and grantmaking were held aside and in addition to other forces for good. However, over the past few years I’ve noticed philanthropy in all forms becoming less siloed and more interwoven with the world around it. Here are eight manifestations of this trend:

  1. CEO branding. Foundation CEOs and high-net-worth donors, following in the footsteps of their corporate counterparts, are realizing the personal and professional value of developing their own “brands”—through blog posts, speeches, articles, and more. By using their voices more aggressively (and sometimes independently), they help support the reputations of the philanthropies they serve and incite meaningful conversation and debate within the field.
  1. Use of advisors and coaches. Philanthropy used to be something largely driven by an individual donor or foundation founder’s own gut instincts and emotional connections, and guided only by their own perceptions and experiences. Philanthropic advisors were practically unheard of. Increasingly, however, philanthropists recognize that those with specific knowledge and experience in philanthropy, grantmaking, leadership, strategy, and operations can provide valuable insight and guidance to help funders make dramatic and rapid change.
  1. Faster health conversions. Twenty years ago, when health conversion foundations first began to appear, their path toward effective philanthropy was gradual. New health conversion foundations usually moved slowly from a broad, “supporting our community” clinical health focus to more strategic efforts that addressed social determinants of health. (Part of this was because the field’s discussion of social determinants was also in its infancy.) Nowadays, I find new health conversion foundations eager to hit the ground running with well-thought-out, strategic approaches that engage communities quickly and deeply, and strive for impact.

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Create a Culture of Innovation

By Kris Putnam-Walkerly, Putnam Consulting Group, as featured in 5 Best Practices of Extraordinary Grantmakers

Recently I read a book called The Innovation Formula by business gurus Michel Robert and Alan Weiss, and I was inspired by the lessons there and began considering how they could be applied successfully to the field of philanthropy. Foundations are, of course, not private businesses, nor should they be. But the concept of innovation definitely isn’t limited to one field, and the best practices for innovation apply across the board.

Too often foundations request “innovative ideas” from their grantees but fail to accomplish the same thing internally. My first job in philanthropy was at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. I recall my boss explaining to me that we were looking for “innovative” ideas to fund. It made sense, except for the fact that no one could define what we meant by innovation. Fast-forward 16 years, and “innovation” remains a ubiquitous buzzword in this field.

While noble, funders’ insistence on funding “innovation” brings up problems.

  • Few funders have defined what they mean by innovation. And if you haven’t defined it, it is difficult to communicate this expectation to grantseekers.
  • The onus of innovation is almost always on the grantees. Philanthropists rarely expect themselves to be innovative. In many cases, I am sure that thought never crosses their minds.
  • Funders give little to no thought about how they expect grantees to be innovative. Most efforts to fund nonprofit organizational capacity, for instance, don’t include building capacity for innovation.

Lacking a clear definition of innovation or an understanding of how to build one’s innovation muscle, the implied assumptions are that innovation “just happens.” Further, lack of clear definition has come to imply that innovation must be a dramatic, game-changing, disruptive new idea or practice: the iPhone of early childhood education, the Post-It note of economic development.

The expectations for innovation are so high that most people naturally feel intimidated, not realizing that they too can create innovations and that innovation is not the exclusive domain of those who are smarter or more creative. The reality is the opposite. Most people, in a supportive environment and with proper supervision, can generate, vet, test, and implement innovative ideas.

Extraordinary funders cultivate four key conditions that are necessary to support innovation in organizations, and they follow a four-step process to help innovation flourish.

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