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Learning about Learning: The Funder’s Role in Developmental Evaluation

Elizabeth Gonzalez

Elizabeth Gonzalez, Former Portfolio Director

As a funder engaged in new and often-complex activity to affect systems change, learning while doing is paramount. It’s also challenging — and leads us to wrestle with questions such as:

  • How do we treat learning as a necessary and expected outcome of a grantmaking commitment, ensuring that we develop new knowledge on how change really happens in a dynamic system?
  • How do we encourage collaboration as well as adaptation among program partners — including helping these organizations confidently and comfortably enter into learning processes with us?
  • How do we balance the intent to achieve our grantmaking goal with the expectation that implementation will surface bumps and barriers — and that there may need to be a change in approach along the way?

A current Linked Learning investment provides a case in point. The Linked Learning approach to college and career readiness had been successfully demonstrated in high schools and districts, so in 2015 we launched Regional Hubs of Excellence to connect Linked Learning pathways across secondary, postsecondary, and workforce systems in broader geographies.

We began this three-year effort with a clear intent: elevate the scale of Linked Learning in four regions committed to this approach (East Bay, Tulare-Kings, Long Beach, and San Bernardino). Irvine’s goal is to help more low-income students in each region graduate high school on time and achieve a postsecondary credential by age 25. From the outset, we have been grateful to conduct this activity with and through a skilled intermediary, Jobs for the Future (JFF).

We recognized that regional expansion of Linked Learning represented, in many ways, new work for all of us, and we anticipated that learning and adaptation were essential to success. We engaged two respected firms, Equal Measure and Harder+Company Community Research, to help all participants — the strong set of players in each Regional Hub as well as JFF and Irvine — gain knowledge as we gained experience. The method chosen was a developmental evaluation, a type of evaluation suited to initiatives that are untested, in early stages, taking place in complex environments, and involving new combinations of players.

Sharing lessons and insights

This approach is indeed generating rich learning for all partners. It is also bringing new understanding about the implications of conducting active learning in the course of implementation.

In mid-February, evaluators Harder+Company Community Research and Equal Measure discussed what it takes to make intermediary and evaluator collaborations work in practice. Later that month, JFF, the initiative leader, spoke to the considerations and challenges that come with designing innovations and testing them in real-time with target audiences.

We at Irvine now add our perspective to the mix.

We launched Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence with a theory for how this grantmaking could positively influence systems change at the regional level. We also knew that we were asking JFF to take this theory and test it in practice, and to do so with constellations of players who, in many cases, were new to each other and to JFF.

We conveyed to JFF and to the regional participants that we expected this work to be challenging, nuanced, and complex. We championed the entry of the two evaluation firms, asking them to collaborate seamlessly with each other, asking JFF to join forces with both, and asking the regional teams of grantees to interact with all — by contributing as well as receiving and applying information as they pursued their respective local aims.

Putting practice into learning

Over the past 18 months, we are learning that, for Irvine:

  • We must take on added responsibilities in developmental work. In some cases, Irvine plays the role of a somewhat silent partner, selecting and leaning on a qualified intermediary to make an initiative happen. But an effort that assumes new learning and change requires us to be visibly involved in order to support intermediary and grantee success. As the funder, we must be clear and consistent in encouraging our partners to not default to a traditional focus on program outcomes. While keeping an eye on the prize — the ultimate goal — is essential, it is also vital for the funder to give parties space to take stock of things when the work gets messy. We can empower everyone to take time, consider implications, and bring forward their best ideas for refining or even shifting the planned approach. It is our job to ensure that all participants know that we truly value adaptation, and that we treat learning itself as a meaningful, desirable outcome.
  • We need to embrace new ways of relating to our partners. Co-creating an approach and design is generally valuable to any partnership, but it is especially important when we want to test and learn about the means for systems change. It is perhaps unfair, and likely inadvisable, to ask any intermediary to strictly follow a funder-generated blueprint. It is more preferable to provide avenues for the intermediary to deeply know the landscape, to engage with key players (grantees), and to suggest and contribute to the design of the implementation approach. Similarly, it is especially important to ensure that there is space for all partners — the intermediary, the evaluator(s), the grantee organizations — to form relationships and enter into the joint effort on their own terms. Not surprisingly, a full and clear commitment to transparency creates a safe environment for the honest interactions and exchanges that are at the heart of developmental work.

We at Irvine are gaining new appreciation for the importance, and in some cases the discomfort, of letting go to allow our partners to own outcomes and the approach. In the case of Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence, we are so thankful to have an intermediary, evaluators, and grantees who work in ways that are fluid, focus on student success, and demonstrate a hunger for learning — and a knack for resiliency in the face of new discoveries.

Together, we are growing as a team and making progress that will serve stakeholders in each region. Regional Hub participants are also generating models and lessons that can benefit others as Linked Learning continues to expand across California.

Learning is the catalyst for these gains. At Irvine, we appreciate these partners offering us this opportunity to further realize what learning means — and what it takes.