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Funding, Learning and Impact: How do grant-making practices help and hinder real grantee learning?


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The world is complex, and change the only constant.  Organizations seeking to be relevant must continuously learn and adapt.  This message is increasingly common across business, government, and many other areas of human enterprise.  It is certainly true for those seeking to promote more responsive and accountable government through grant making.  However, too often external funding can force organizations towards rigid and linear projects, with little scope for adaptation and little incentive (or support) to prioritize learning.  Given the mixed evidence about the impact of work on transparency and accountability, and continued questions about how to work more effectively, we need to get much better at real learning that informs action, such as:

  • Learning about changing contextual factors through ongoing ‘scanning’ and analysis
  • Learning about the implementation and outcomes of activities through tight feedback loops
  • Iterative reflection and adaptation of organizational strategy and theory of change
  • Strengthening culture, capacities and processes for organizational learning

The Transparency and Accountability Initiative (T/AI), with support from the Hewlett Foundation, worked with consultants from INTRAC to explore how grant-making is encouraging and undermining learning.  Do grant proposals, monitoring and evaluation indicators, and reporting requirements enable real reflection and learning, or do they become box-checking exercises that take time and resources away from real learning?  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report finds evidence of both.  Thus, while there is an increasing emphasis on learning by funders, their practices, systems and strategies often limit the possibilities of real learning and adaptation.  The good news is that the report also identifies numerous positive innovations by funders who are committed to encouraging learning.  These practices need to become the norm.

Constraints on Learning

The report identifies a number of funding practices and dynamics that constrain learning, and more strategic and adaptive grantee efforts more broadly.  Overall, funding that is based on simplistic thinking (e.g. transparency + participation = accountability or closing ‘feedback loops’) and short-term projects with predefined deliverables, is unlikely to encourage learning, or be particularly effective.

Specific funding characteristics that constrain learning include:

  • M&E that doesn’t provide actionable learning to the organization on an ongoing basis, but rather focuses on narrow, pre-determined indicators and/or measuring directly attributable ‘impact’ at the end of a project phase
  • Relationships between funders and grantees that do not encourage frank discussion about challenges, setbacks and strategic shifts because of uncertainties about continued support
  • Proposal/reporting processes based on simplistic theories of change and quantifying outputs, with little or no real integration of lessons learned and application of learning
  • Funding that doesn’t support the costs of building/supporting organizational learning capacities and processes

At a recent T/AI learning event, Rakesh Rajani, formerly head of Twaweza and now Director of Democratic Participation and Governance at the Ford Foundation, framed the challenge for grant making that supports coherent strategies and organizational learning in a short video.  He underscores a key point from the report, that learning is a shared responsibility and that “Grantmakers shape the environment in which grantees learn but… grant-making practice interacts with grantee’s own commitment and capacity for organisational learning.”

Supporting and Enabling Learning

The good news is that the report demonstrates that most grantee organizations are eager to learn, there are grant-making practices that can support learning, and that a number of funders are putting in place innovative approaches to enable better learning by grantees.

The report has numerous recommendations for grant makers, including the following broad suggestions for funding practice:

  1. Longer-term, core funding that promotes flexible and adaptive approaches, encouraging an organizational culture of reflection and innovation.

Examples: Irish Aid’s multi-annual program provides long-term, predictable and significant funding for five civil society partner agencies since 2003.

  1. Support for engagement between grantees and researchers or other ‘critical friends’ to bring in outside perspectives and potentially tailor action-oriented research to organizational learning needs.

Examples: Embedded academics support real-time learning with grantees of the International Budget Partnership and the Rockefeller Foundation’s support for ‘critical friends’ for grantees.

  1. Investment in funder-grantee relationships that are based on mutual-respect, trust and honesty, and use this as the basis for supporting and discussing nuanced ToCs, realistic outcomes and impacts, appropriate M&E and reporting, learning from successes and setbacks, and strategic shifts when necessary.

Examples: Norwegian Church Aid, Christian Aid, and the Church of Sweden collaboratively-developed (with grantees) reporting formats that encourage mutual reflection, frank discussion and strategic adaptation.

Funding for Greater Impact

This report is part of the emerging insights in recent years about how externally-funded efforts can have the most impact on responsive and accountable governance.  A seminal report by McGee and Gaventa highlighted the need to, among other things, move beyond linear thinking and tool-based approaches to address the complex relationships of power and politics that underpin government accountability.  Jonathan Fox’s recent work has pointed to the need for integrated approaches by coalitions of pro-reform actors.  Diane de Gramont emphasizes the multiple contributing factors to governance reform and calls for approaches that embrace this complexity.

Complementing the work of these analysts has been new thinking about how external funding can be most effective at addressing the political nature of reform.  These ideas have centered on how to best support locally-embedded, politically-savvy organizations to pursue multiple complementary approaches flexibly and adaptively.  Acronyms for these new approaches abound: DDD (Doing Development Differently), TWP (Thinking and Working Politically), PDIA (Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation) – but all highlight the importance of ongoing, reflective, action-oriented learning that informs both short term activities and longer term strategies.  Real learning and adaptation need to be embedded in broader shifts towards supporting more integrated, system-wide approaches that focus on shifting the power relationships and political dynamics that underpin real accountability.

You can find the full report on grant-making practice and grantee learning here.

Read more in a recent T/AI Think Piece highlighting related shifts to more strategic funding support here.

T/AI is committed to leading exploration and dialogue around how to improve the impacts of work on transparency and accountability.  We will leverage this report and other emerging analysis to convene discussion and push for more innovative practice.  Contact Brendan Halloran ( to join this conversation.

2 responses to “Funding, Learning and Impact: How do grant-making practices help and hinder real grantee learning?”

  1. […] to really invest in and benefit from this kind of shared analysis, reflection and strategizing?  Or are they driven to be producing tangible outputs and reports, with learning coming on their own t…  Civil society organizations need both resources and flexibility to engage meaningfully in […]

  2. […] of the shifting political landscape, as it relates to a particular priority area or challenge (i.e. learning).  One approach to strengthening the capacities and opportunities for organizations to benefit […]