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Reflecting on Linked Learning Regional Hubs: Our Commitment to Learning in Action

The Irvine Foundation is deeply committed to learning and to sharing knowledge internally and with our grantees, partners, and others in the field. The most recent example relates to Linked Learning, a major Irvine initiative that we culminated last year (but which lives on through the leadership of the Linked Learning Alliance).

Our commitment to impact assessment and learning is captured in our IA&L framework, which describes the why, what, and how of our IA&L principles. We use the framework as an internal guide and share it externally to honor our commitment to transparency and openness and to hold ourselves accountable to what we aspire to achieve.

The Linked Learning Regional Hubs of Excellence, which wrapped up in 2019, provides an example of Irvine’s commitment in action. The hubs brought together K–12 school districts, institutions, employers, and community-based organizations in four California communities to scale and elevate the quality of Linked Learning, an evidence-based approach to promoting college and career readiness. (SRI International led a multi-year evaluation of Linked Learning, funded by Irvine, in nine diverse California school districts beginning in 2009. That study showed that high school students in Linked Learning are less likely to drop out, more likely to graduate, and earn more credits compared with peers in traditional high schools.)

Learning with the regional hubs took place on many fronts, for example:

  • Managing short- and long-term progress in systems change work. Linked Learning had been well-tested in high schools, but the idea of working across sectors to spread Linked Learning regionally was a new approach. We partnered with Jobs for the Future (JFF) to design and manage the work, and early on JFF’s work with communities revealed a tension between the need to balance the long-term nature of systems transformation with the desire to see short-term wins that build momentum. JFF developed “Now and Then: Balancing Quick Wins with Lasting Progress,” which shares stories and insights about how to best manage this tension. Key principles include identifying and achieving early wins that support longer-term gains, crafting a narrative that helps stakeholders understand the importance of key actions, and building collective understanding of the value of systemic work for different institutional stakeholders.
  • Supporting the development of leaders who can drive systemic change. From the outset, both JFF and Irvine recognized that leadership capacity would be important. But the kinds of leadership needed to support systemic change was less clear. With support from our outside evaluators, we formulated a set of hypotheses about what competencies might be needed. Our evaluation partners did a deeper dive, which included gathering community perspectives on the subject. The resulting brief, Cultivating Systems Leadership in Cross-Sector Partnerships, lays out nine characteristics of effective systems leaders. Some characteristics pertain to specific skill sets (communication and cultivating strong relationships), and others relate to ways of working (creating structures that facilitate joint work and empowering various actors to contribute to a collective effort). Finally, some represent dispositions, such as an open mindset and unwavering attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Promoting successful partnerships among funders, intermediaries, and evaluators. Social change efforts often involve partnerships but offer time to reflect on what it takes to collaborate effectively. With the Regional Hub partnership, we sought to learn from our own experience and those of other funders, intermediaries, and evaluators. Weaving Successful Partnerships: When Funders, Evaluators, and Intermediaries Work Together explores how to structure complex systems-change strategies involving multiple partners. It shares common tensions encountered in this effort (with Irvine, JFF, and evaluators), including power dynamics, negotiating roles related to strategy and learning, trust and communication issues, and the pressure to demonstrate impact. It offers seven critical questions for funders to weave together partners and position them for collective success. The paper has been broadly shared through blog posts and conference presentations.

We value the knowledge our partners develop and share with the broader field and recognize the importance of sharing knowledge within Irvine. Our partners, Equal Measure and Engage R+D, designed a learning session for program staff to explore insights and lessons from the Regional Hubs work that are relevant to other Irvine-funded work. We documented and shared the results with the broader Irvine team, and many of the insights influence our ongoing grantmaking.

We believe great things can happen when we reflect on our work, when we do that in partnership with others, and when we have conversations with the broader field about what we are learning. We look forward to continuing to share and learn at multiple levels of our work.