By Allison Lugo Knapp, program director, Philanthropic Services
February 5, 2013
“No rushing!” As a young kid learning to play the violin, I heard those words frequently from my orchestra conductor and teacher, Mrs. H. There she was, standing on the conductor’s podium, peering at us through her wire-rimmed glasses, stopping us in the middle of a passage, and reminding us of the essentials of what makes great music. Listen. Slow down. Pay attention. Engage.Many years later, having moved on from the violin to philanthropy, I encounter a lot of similarities in the challenges between the work of foundations and what I experienced learning to play music. To me, a foundation is much like an orchestra: You have leadership at the top creating strategy and direction (the CEO and Board), management directing strategies (VPs and Program Directors), and staff that executes those strategies. Each plays their part to form one unit that performs together – much like when conductors, section leaders, and individual instrument sections constitute a larger orchestra or philharmonic.
At the Johnson Center, we have worked with hundreds of foundations of all types, sizes and staff over the years, primarily through the delivery of courses via The Grantmaking School. Our expertise in being a provider of grantmaker education is grounded in a blend of theoretical and the practical, with a focus on the fundamental principles and practices of effective grantmaking. In recent years, we have increasingly begun working with individual foundations to provide customized training that meets the specific professional development needs of a single foundation. From the initial conversation to assess needs of the staff, to the delivery of the actual course, each engagement is a journey that has resulted in a deep learning experience for both our clients and us, and as a result strengthens our work in this area. It also offers some important lessons I’d like to share about the importance of professional development, incorporating it as a practice into your organization, and the potential results that it can have for improved grantmaking results.
Be intentional about it.
Be thoughtful about why you’re doing this in the first place. Listen and talk to staff, gauge what their interest and needs are, and involve them in the selection and development process of their own professional development. Also, make sure to communicate the intention and value of what this will bring – i.e., Why is this important; what will they as individuals and “we” as a foundation take away from this?
Be clear about expectations.
Is access to professional development part of the cultural norm in your organization, or is this a first time engagement? Will this be a mandatory or optional training? What is the goal for individuals, and for the larger foundation? What do you expect staff to get out of this? How will leadership participate? These are all questions that should be clarified when setting an expectation that staff take away time from their daily work to attend what may be perceived as an extra-curricular activity. In other words, does the foundation see this as a ‘need to do’ vs. a ‘nice to do’?
Engage and follow through.
One of the reoccurring comments we see from participants on evaluations is about challenges to applying what they’ve learned. Unless you are planning to engage the provider or have a professional development series planned as a longer term strategy, often times ‘one off’ engagements may lose their value if there isn’t a plan for internal follow up. Its important to keep momentum within the organization and create a learning environment that is ongoing and allows for feedback loops among staff and leadership.
And of course…in the wise words of Mrs. H. – Don’t rush it.
Too often we are asked to pack a one- or two-day agenda with an overly ambitious amount of content. Not everything can be covered in a day, nor should it be. In order to be intentional, create value and have a learning environment, it is better to allow participants to go deeper on a few issues that are relevant to them rather than trying to cover as much ground as possible. This is best addressed in the creation and planning of the content, and can be managed by creating ‘parking lot’ for follow up on other items and questions that may come up throughout the training.
In thinking back to music, the successful execution of a complex musical piece lies in the ability of each musician being able to come together as a team, but perform their individual roles to the best of their ability. A foundation operates much in the same way, in that the execution of grantmaking strategies, along with core operational functions, works best when everyone within the organization fully understands their role, and has been provided the tools to do so. While there is no substitute for years of experience, there are ways in which new and existing staff can be provided the time to “practice” and develop their skills through professional development. They can be equipped with the confidence, support and expertise they need to perform their best in their individual roles, as well as for the benefit of the larger organization.