Learning for Impact

Grantmaking lessons put staff development at heart of NFPs

Four years ago, Australian Executor Trustees Limited (AET) embarked on a different approach to grantmaking by directing funds that would help not-for-profit organisations change and strengthen through a focus on staff learning and development.

October, 2019

At the heart of the decision was the recognition of the vital role staff play in the sector, not just in driving outcomes but also harnessing their passion and commitment to their organisation and its causes for community benefit.

Now, the verdict on the AET’s grant program that was called Learning for Impact is in, and the picture that emerges is of a sector that has responded to the learning challenge with different approaches and outcomes.

There were three key questions at the heart of the Learning for Impact program:

  1. What achieves greater impact: individual professional development or organisational learning?
  2. What criteria and conditions support positive learning outcomes?
  3. What are the guiding principles that foster positive funding partnerships?

And the report identifies the answer, after discussions and debates with the 13 grant recipients, – it depends.

But perhaps the more intangible question is, what does it depend on? Ben Clark, Head of Philanthropy & Social Investment at AET, explains.

“We identified there are range of organisational ‘health’ indicators that translate to impact and outcomes and critically, these indicators need to be explored and identified through honest conversations with the partnering organisation and their staff,’’ he says

“Traditional benchmarks of success, such as tenure or experience of executive team or robust board governance certainly assist, but organisational readiness, flexibility and willingness to discuss delivery risks are arguably more important.”

Ben Clark, Head of Philanthropy & Social Investment

AET found that it was important to tailor grants to an organisation’s need and allow for a dynamic response to what was being learned. As the report observed: “In the NFP sector, there are many common challenges and clear solutions, but also an increasing amount of complexity and uncertainty. The learning programs being granted need to be different depending on where about on this spectrum the opportunity sits.’’

Critical to the design, delivery and implementation of the learning grants is a collaborative and aligned approach between the funder and recipient. The report outlines nine guiding principles that are essential to fostering positive funding partnerships – ranging from encouraging and celebrating learning at every stage, sharing new learnings, create flexibility for innovation and plan for sustainability of the programs once they’re finished – to help get the most out of the grants.

The report highlights responses from detailed discussions with the 13 organisations that were part of the three-year funding program. The cohort of grant partners were diverse not only in the communities that they service but business models, service delivery, intended impacts and learning strategies for the grant.

Ben says: “This report, which profiles our partners, their learning programs and projects also seeks to articulate the conditions or environments that supported successful outcomes, the features we considered when identifying grant partners and summarises intended outcomes from approaches to philanthropic investment in learning and professional development.”

The Australian Centre for Social Impact (TACSI) assessed how grant recipients tracked against their learning and development goals and identified six themes that are intended for AET and grant recipients to use for the program’s improvements.

They were:

  • Start small, go deep
    “In year three we continued to see that funding smaller groups of people led to stronger relationships, deeper impact and more engaging stories of change…’’
  • Longer term investment in grant partners that show dedication is more likely to result in sustainable solutions
    “Participants who have been part of the Learning for Impact grant for two years or more have had the time to adjust rigid internal processes, change organisational culture and settle programs in their organisations…’’
  • Evaluation structures identify hidden value and support storytelling
    “The stories that the organisations shared showed instances of impact toward the goals the organisation had set. Having an external view to facilitate analysis helped organisations see more clearly the value of their programs.’’
  • Having at least one person invested in the Learning for Impact program was key
    Specifically, someone who was passionate, experienced and holding a clear vision for a better world.
  • Keeping an eye on the big picture
  • Mindset shifts are essential for lasting impact

“As a grant making committee, we’ve already resolved to integrate the report’s themes and principles in our approach to identifying and working with prospective partners, delivering greater transparency about our approach to grant making and the outcomes we are seeking to empower organisations and practitioners to achieve” concludes Ben.

See the Final Report on three years of AET delivering the Learning for Impact program here.

Visit AET philanthropic services web page here.

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