Key Points

Strategic learning, a critical if relatively new lens for philanthropy, is neither simple nor efficient to institutionalize or practice yet — foundations are still figuring out how to do it well. In 2015, the Episcopal Health Foundation launched a project to distill lessons about how leading foundations configure evaluation and learning, and how they allocate related responsibilities in support of strategic learning.

This article addresses different models that foundations use to establish and staff evaluation and learning functions, what other organizational considerations they should take into account in order to prioritize strategic-learning work, and what tools and approaches can be used to initiate strategic learning.

Interviews with officers from more than a dozen foundations revealed that strategic learning does not require wholesale structural and cultural change; an incremental approach, instead, can phase in greater complexity as foundations expand staff capacity. The interviews also uncovered several areas where further exploration of system building and practice at foundations has potential for advancing the field.