Three Lessons on Learning from Three Different Perspectives

Three Lessons on Learning from Three Different Perspectives

This issue of GMNsight is co-produced by GEO (Grantmakers for Effective Organizations)

Cindy Rizzo is senior advisor, evaluation and strategy, at the Arcus Foundation. Allison Gister is director of grants and knowledge management at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Barbara Osborn is senior advisor at Liberty Hill Foundation. Gister, Osborn and Rizzo were matched as part of the Ambassador Program at GEO’s The Learning Conference 2015. Coming from three different roles, they used this as an opportunity to learn with and from each other. After attending the conference, they shared their biggest takeaways about what it takes for grantmakers to learn together.

#1: It’s important for grantmakers to find time to learn about learning with and from each other.

Allison Gister: I was a first time attendee of GEO’s Learning Conference. There were numerous concepts and discussions that I’ve wanted to explore, but have not yet found a space or forum to do so as a grants manager. I’m pleased to see that both GEO and GMN recognize this important, and relatively yet untapped opportunity for sharing ideas, and learning together.

Barbara Osborn: With foundations moving to build internal practices that help grantees and foundations learn together, Liberty Hill and our partners developed an array of collaborative models for learning with social justice grantees. We were excited for the opportunity to share our experiences through a breakout session at the Learning Conference.

Cindy Rizzo: As one of the people with responsibilities related to learning at our foundation, I thought it best to get our own internal house in order first before opening our learning activities up to others. At the time we began this venture, about two years ago, I would go to GEO conferences and sit around with foundation colleagues who were maybe a step or two ahead of us, but mostly still trying to crack the learning nut. A lot has changed since then, and just when we were beginning to get the hang of the learning organization thing, there’s a new mountain to climb — we’re going to have to learn with others about how we best learn with those same others.

#2: Learning well takes input from everyone.

Cindy Rizzo: Our program staff learn through many traditional methods—commissioning scans, conducting site visits, attending conferences, and convening grantees and other stakeholders. In some instances we try to make sure other Arcus staff can participate in these activities. We also bring in speakers to our staff and our board. Our board and some senior staff were in Africa in June attending a conference of social justice grantees and meeting with people from organizations we fund in Uganda who are working to conserve chimpanzees and their habitats.

Allison Gister: I was thrilled to attend the session with Jessica Bearman, Sara Davis, and Marc McDonald on the nexus between grantmaking operations and grantmaking strategy at the conference. The three successfully argued that blurring organizational boundaries — in this instance by embedding grants management staff within program teams — facilitated learning for both parties and led to operational structures that facilitated strategy implementation. As I continue to shape the structure of grants management at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the session demonstrated some clear benefits to thinking differently about internal learning and knowledge sharing.

Barbara Osborn: We know grantees hold knowledge that is important for us to access. From our very first grant 40 years ago, Liberty Hill’s grantmaking has been advised by community leaders, our “brain trust,” who advise us on grant decisions. We are incredibly excited about our Training for Impact model for capacity building which, like every program at Liberty Hill, was designed because of needs articulated by the grantee community and with constant grantee input. Beyond traditional learning methods, we also use our evaluation activities as a means to learn and improve. This learning lens approach to evaluation has been key to our work and has helped us to improve how we plan initiatives and how we implement the second year of our leadership development program.

#3: We need to open our learning to everyone in our field.

Barbara Osborn: At Liberty Hill, there’s a constant two-way flow of information. Liberty Hill generates knowledge to support grantee campaigns. For 20 years, we’ve been producing reports on environmental justice issues that create a research foundation that is then used by grantee advocates to advance better environmental policy.

Cindy Rizzo: We’ve been most successful in our efforts to learn with colleague funders. Earlier this year we co-hosted a convening of youth leaders with two other funders who are also partners with us on a new Youth Action Fund collaborative. With grantees, our toe in the water has been to review our outcomes and indicators with them to get their feedback and work more closely with those receiving general operating support to discuss metrics. Not yet sufficient, but there are some promising developments ahead that might afford us new opportunities.

Allison Gister: Sharing our learning has long been an important value at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. GEO’s recently released Learning Together publication describes in detail the foundation’s Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning strategy that embeds collective learning, involving as many as 50 grantees at a time. In addition, the foundation routinely posts research, interim reports, and other publications on our website.

Though we come at learning from three very different perspectives, we find ourselves in agreement on many points. As more foundations look to how they can grow and improve their learning practices, our hope is that they will see the benefit of involving all perspectives, both in and outside of their organizations. We can really amplify our ability to get better at what we do by involving everyone in how we learn about what we do.



Cindy Rizzo focuses on evaluation of Arcus’ program strategies and initiatives with a priority on learning from and improving our strategies and activities. Prior to joining Arcus in 2006, Cindy was director of Grantmaking at the Boston Foundation where she specialized in the areas of Health and Human Services, homelessness prevention, LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS. She also worked for more than six years on the staff of the Fenway Community Health Center. She currently serves as Chair of the Board of Funders for LGBTQ Issues and as a member of the board of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Past board membership includes Funders Concerned About AIDS, Massachusetts Health Council, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, Gay Community News and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. In 2009, Cindy was appointed to the New York City Commission for LGBTQ Runaway and Homeless Youth. Cindy holds a JD from Suffolk University School of Law in Boston and is a published author of fiction and essays.

Allison Gister leads the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s grants management team, applying best practices for effective, efficient, and knowledgeable grantmaking that aligns with Foundation requirements and complies with IRS regulations.  She also partners with leadership and others to further develop an innovative knowledge management strategy to foster learning, communication, and decision making.  Prior to joining the Foundation, Gister spent more than eight years at the Annenberg Foundation, most recently serving as Grants Manager, where she also provided programmatic support to members of the Board of Directors.  Gister earned a bachelor’s degree in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

Barbara Osborn spent more than a decade at one of the nation’s preeminent social justice foundations, Liberty Hill. There she built the foundation’s brand, developed communications tools at a historic moment of transformation, and inspired the foundation’s nonprofit grantees to embrace communications’ power as a tool for social change. She teaches a doctoral seminar in community-based research with Professor Sandra Ball-Rokeach at USC Annenberg and holds a Ph.D. in communications from the University of California San Diego.


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