by Alex Hildebrand   |   January 28, 2019

In the social sector, we’re bursting with passion, talent, and dedication to justice and equity, yet all too often we experience a very real tension between getting the work done and taking the time to reflect and incorporate learning into our actions for greater effectiveness. 

Limited bandwidth for learning is the norm rather than the exception, even though we know that strong learning practices enable programmatic excellence and organizational health, sustainability, and relevance in a complex and changing landscape. Moreover, the conventional tools of our sector – namely, strategic planning, evaluation, and organizational development – tend to be applied in isolation, limiting their potential for transformative improvements in our work.

What does it take for social sector organizations to truly deliver on mission, fulfilling the promise of greater equity and justice?

What does it take for social sector organizations to truly deliver on mission, fulfilling the promise of greater equity and justice? We can do this most effectively as learning organizations: identifying WHAT we need to learn about and then setting up structures and processes for HOW we will learn about it.

The WHAT. Nonprofits need to learn about whether their PROGRAMS are achieving intended outcomes, what parts of their ORGANIZATION are supporting and limiting their success, and what is happening in the ENVIRONMENT that they need to respond or adapt to.

Focus on what you are trying to learn by identifying a few key questions in each of these three areas:


  • Are our programs achieving the outcomes we expect? If not, how do we strengthen or redesign them so they do?
  • Are we offering the right supports or interventions to achieve desired outcomes?
  • Do we have the necessary skills and credentials to deliver our programs?
  • How can we better reach our target population?


  • Do we have the right organizational, staff, and board structures?
  • What key organizational functions do we most need to improve to support the delivery of our programs and services?
  • Do we have the right funding model?


  • What field developments or best practices should inform our program model or organizational strategy?
  • What is changing for our target populations or issue areas that affects our ability to have impact?
  • How are funding and policy trends affecting our organization’s position? Its funding model?

Having defined the WHAT you can attend to the HOW by putting in place the three foundational pillars of learning:

  1. PRACTICES: How data are analyzed and discussed; who uses data when to inform what decisions

  2. INFRASTRUCTURE: Database, measurement tools, data collection and management processes

  3. NORMS and VALUES: A cultivated climate where learning thrives and informs actions

These pillars are interrelated: progress in one area depends on – and will promote – progress in others. For example, a basic foundation of learning norms and values is essential to making learning practices work effectively, and the more you gain experience with learning practices, the more you will build and reinforce norms and values that support learning. This dynamic should challenge your organization to attend to all three pillars and also help you plan and sequence your work in developing each of these areas. 

In 2019, we are integrating the tools in LFA’s toolbox to help organizations strengthen their learning muscles so they can more effectively deliver on mission. Keep your eye out for a framework that will guide you through a process of determining the WHAT of learning as well as the HOW.

In the meantime, prime the pump for learning at your organization by generating discussion on the following questions:

  • What are the things your nonprofit takes the time to learn about? What do you think it should take more time to learn about?

  • What about how your organization works is supportive of learning? What inhibits learning?