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Foundation Operations: Board Issues-> Organizational Learning-> How to Structure

How to Structure a Foundation to Learn

Although the concept of organizational learning has been around for the past two decades, foundations have not been as quick to embrace the practice as other sectors. Organizational learning emerged as an aspect of organizational theory – the study of models and theories about the way an organization learns and adapts – when Peter Senge developed the notion of a learning organization:

A learning organization is [one in which] people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.

In organizational development theory, learning is a characteristic of an adaptive organization – an organization that is able to sense changes in signals from its environment (both internal and external) and adapt accordingly. Organizations are encouraged to learn from experience and incorporate learning as feedback into the planning process. It is anticipated that this type of learning leads to the development of knowledge that, shared among individuals, leads to effective action. A learning organization is considered to have the capacity to acquire the knowledge necessary to be effective and continually improve.

For grantmakers, there are numerous benefits to incorporating organizational learning into their work including:

  • developing a thorough understanding of the issues, target populations, and appropriate strategies;
  • improving overall foundation transparency and effectiveness;
  • communicating more strategically with grantees, peers, and the public;
  • contributing to the field’s knowledge base; and
  • making a greater impact.

For grantmakers who want to incorporate organizational learning into their work, the learning needs to be intentional and supported by a structure and resources. Unfortunately, that need for structure and resources is often the most significant barrier to organizational learning by foundations. In the report Learning for Community Change: Core Components of Foundations that Learn, other barriers are identified as “an inclination toward the short-term commitments, a forward-thinking (rather than reflective) orientation, a fascination with new approaches, and an emphasis on moving money out the door.”

The following are some ways grantmakers can begin to incorporate purposeful learning into their work:

  • have the foundation’s board, leadership, and staff value and promote learning;
  • make organizational learning a priority for the foundation;
  • value learning as a foundation resource – such as intellectual capital – that contributes to the foundation’s overall assets;
  • incorporate structured learning and sharing opportunities into the foundation’s operations; make sure that it is set as a directive and is supported with appropriate financial and human resources;
  • learn from and with foundation board and staff, grantees, and other funders; and
  • communicate the learnings.



The California Wellness Foundation, Reflections. This series, produced by the foundation, shares lessons learned and information gleaned from its grantmaking practices and strategies. The Foundation publishes the series three or four times a year.

GrantCraft, Learning Together: Collaborative Inquiry among Grant Makers and Grantees (New York, NY: 2006). This guide explores a method called “collaborative inquiry.” Grantmakers define the practice, consider potential benefits, and grapple with common challenges. A mini-case study shows how collaborative inquiry was used to support growth in a new field. Available at

Hamilton, Ralph, Prudence Brown, Robert Chaskin, et al., Learning for Community Change: Core Components of Foundations that Learn (Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall Center for Children, 2005). This paper explores how foundations that invest in community change can learn more from their efforts. Learning here refers not only to the content of knowledge but also to the broad range of structures.

Leader to Leader Institute, Leading Organizational Learning: Harnessing the Power of Knowledge (New York, NY: March 2004). This handbook helps business, government, and nonprofit leaders understand how to master learning and knowledge sharing within their organizations. Available at

Ross, Robert K., Ten Years Later: On Impact, Learning and Saluting Our Grantees (Los Angeles, CA: The California Endowment, 2006). This monograph reflects upon the work of the endowment’s grantees during its first decade and the insights gained from this much valued health partnership.  




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