Learning Logs 2.0:  Connecting Grants Management, Foundation Strategy & Grantees

Learning Logs 2.0: Connecting Grants Management, Foundation Strategy & Grantees

A Follow-up to 2016 Successful Structures Bush Foundation Case Story

Who + Where + When + What + How?

The Five Ws, Five Ws and one H, 5W1H, are considered basic in information-gathering or problem-solving. They are often mentioned in journalism, research, and police investigations. The 5Ws are:  What happened? Who is involved? Where did it take place? When did it take place? Why did that happen? Within journalism and research, many add a sixth question: How?  These questions constitute a formula for getting the complete story on a subject. For GMNSight, we are playing with this format and really emphasizing the HOW because, when it comes to grants management, the HOW is where the magic happens!

1. WHO is involved? 

  • Bush Foundation Community Innovation Program, Grants Management, Communications Teams
  • Bush Foundation Community Innovation Program Grantees
  • Visitors to the Bush Foundation website

2. WHERE did it take place?

Learning Logs developed as a reporting requirement of the Bush Foundation Community Innovation Program; they are written by Community Innovation grantees and shared on the Bush Foundation website.

 3. WHEN did it take place? 

In 2012, new president Jennifer Ford Reedy joined the Bush Foundation amid organizational change and an emerging, explicit commitment to “customer service.”  The foundation launched a new program called Community Innovation designed to inspire and support community problem solving.  New leadership and a new program inspired the foundation to re-think how it documented grantee progress.

Communications Director Dominick Washington describes the opportunity: “[Community Innovation] lent itself so obviously to reflection and learning, and, just as importantly, to sharing. This is a program where we know not everything is going to go as planned. But, if we discover how grantees respond and evolve, we would achieve our vision for the Community Innovation Program.”

The first so-called Learning Logs appeared on Bush Foundation website in 2015, after several months of planning by a cross-functional team comprised of communications and program staff.  Learning Logs continue to evolve.

4. WHAT happened? 

Published with grantee permission, Learning Logs capture interim and final reports from Community Innovation grant recipients and are made available on-line “to inspire and support community innovation across the region.” The focus of the reports (and on-line access) is to help grantees share what they are learning and to learn alongside and from the experience of other grantees.

Community Innovation Director Molly Matheson Gruen reports, “Most grantees agree to share the entirety of their reports, and might only decline to share sections if sensitive information about a population or partner is shared.”

It has taken time for both the foundation and grantees to orient interactions with Bush toward learning, not in place of accountability but with an equal emphasis on candor, reflection and learning.  Ms. Matheson Gruen concludes: “We realized – and would suggest to others – that both what you’re asking and why is what makes this process worthwhile.”

5. WHY did it happen?

The Community Innovation Program believes learning and reflecting in real time, as grantees forge new paths, is integral to the program’s goal:  to support more effective community innovations.

Like many foundations, the Bush Foundation has long required grant reports from both organizational grantees and individuals involved in fellowship programs. Grantees and fellows wrote and submitted reports; program officers read and responded to them. But, according to Ms. Matheson Gruen, “After that, they’d just be filed. While we might have an interaction with the grantee themselves or review a report when a new request was submitted, we felt like we were missing an opportunity. We were missing the chance to connect grantees with one another.”

In crafting the program’s reporting requirements, the team maintained the standard accountability measures, such as progress on activities and outcomes, but decided to collect this information over the phone – during check-in conversations with grantees. The foundation re-purposed written reports to focus on highlighting what grantees learned from their experience.  Ms. Matheson Gruen explains: “We didn’t want grantees to check boxes for us, we wanted to connect with and learn from grantees, and have grantees learn from one another.” The Community Innovation Program team sought to mobilize grantees’ reflections and insights: “We saw such valuable things being shared, we just knew others needed access to this great insight.”

Learning Logs are part of the foundation’s over-arching commitment “to invest in great ideas and the people who power them.” [https://www.bushfoundation.org]. Communications Director Dominick Washington points to the potential of Learning Logs to urge connections and collaboration: “Regardless of the different problems and different regions on which our grantees focus, we know the spirit behind their efforts is really the same.”

Indeed, all the foundation’s grantees share the ability to solve problems with creativity and ingenuity.  Ms. Matheson Gruen concurs, “We sometimes have to point out what folks have in common but as they come together, they realize they have so much in common; as one grantee told me, ‘Being with other Community Innovation grantees feels like we have come home.’”

6. HOW did it happen? 

Once the Community Innovations Program decided to emphasize learning, reflection and sharing in their grantees’ reporting process, the team discussed and debated exactly how to make it happen.  It helped the team to openly acknowledge and address what they called, “the funder/grantee dynamic.”  Bush Foundation needed to say, again and again, that the foundation was open to hearing what was not going well and what was going well.  The foundation had to prove that it would not be punitive when grantees shared what might traditionally be considered “bad news.”

Ms. Matheson Gruen explains, “To break down those dynamics, we had to be very explicit about wanting to know everything, that honesty is valued.  And inside the foundation, we had to understand that trust is something that doesn’t just happen on the first meeting. We have to show that we are worthy of grantees’ trust.”

Over time, program officers agree, Learning Logs have changed the reporting process.  Grantees see greater purpose in their own reports and are excited to be an audience for peers and colleagues. The shift has spurred an even higher level of stakeholder accountability among grantees. Ms. Matheson Gruen reports, “One grantee took the report draft to six different meetings of stakeholders, so he could be sure that everyone felt like the report represented them and their experience. So, that is a challenge – we worry about the time grantees spend on reports – but this kind of stakeholder accountability and responsiveness – this is exactly the kind of person we want to be funding.”

So far, the communications and program teams have reviewed reports to identify the most salient responses, which were then excerpted on-line to attract readers to a key concept or lesson from each project.  Mr. Washington confirms: “Needless to say, our first try at this has been very labor- and time-intensive.”

Nevertheless, it is proving to be time well spent!  Learning Logs have spurred grantee learning and cooperation. Around application deadlines, page-views jump – a good sign that potential applicants were taking the time to learn what the Bush Foundation valued. Even with limited search capacity and labor-intensive uploading, Learning Logs have become a vehicle for grantee-to-foundation-to-grantee exchange.

So, last January, when the Foundation converted 60 years of paper and digital records into a single, technologically advanced system, the grants management, communications and program teams started talking about what this new technology could mean for Learning Logs.  Internally, they needed to reduce the time and labor it takes to get logs uploaded. For users, Ms. Matheson Gruen adds, “We needed a search tool so grantees can find the Learning Logs that make the most sense for them.” As tablets and phones replace laptops and desktop screens, making the logs accessible on mobile screens is another urgent need.

The team’s short-hand for enhancements like these is Learning Logs 2.0. Getting there, the team agrees, would be impossible if not for the conversion to a new grants management system in 2016. Working together, the teams created an on-line form to allow seamless transfer from grantee to database to website, with administrative checks along the way.  A mock-up of the new landing page will go “live” in 2017. Grantees will soon be able to search and find peers with a few clicks of the mouse.  “Seeing the mock-up opened up our eyes to how much more we can do,” reports Mr. Washington.

Such ease of access not only improves upon the 1.0 version, but makes paper reports, relegated to files seem positively ancient.


An anecdote from Mr. Washington captures the enormity – quite literally – of the foundation’s shift: “The Bush Foundation is about 60 years old, and for the first 60 of those years, we had offices in the First National Bank building. On my first day of work, I walked into the office and saw these huge file cabinets, called Lektrievers.  A few months later, we moved into a new office. Just before we moved in, we got a frantic phone call from the building engineer:  these cabinets were too heavy for the floor. He warned us that they would fall through the floor!  A steel plate had to be added to reinforce the floor under these cabinets. Think about it:  so much knowledge in one place, we needed steel plates to bear the weight.  Now, we are unleashing it, getting it out of those cabinets, and to people who can use it.”

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