A learning agenda: what it is and why you need it
So, you have your array of data points that you track consistently. You’ve even put together a fancy dashboard that is the envy of your nonprofit colleagues.
But maybe you're wondering how to capture and document some of your observations and conclusions – information that is less quantifiable – from your experience running your programs, managing your operations, or collaborating, so that you can share what you've learned with others.
Here's where a learning agenda might be helpful. At the heart of a learning agenda is a set of key questions that you are interested in answering about your program or organization that can provide focus, context, and clarity to whatever measurement and assessment activities you are currently using.
"To share what has made your program successful you will have to show not just that your program works, but how and why."
Your key questions can be open-ended and will likely be related to outputs or metrics that you are measuring. For example, if you are launching a new program or service, your metrics may be around the number of new clients you are able to draw in year one, and perhaps their level of satisfaction with your services. Your key questions might include: What outreach methods are most effective in drawing new clients? As the program grows, will staff need to develop new or different skills? What will the anticipated changes in leadership at our partner organizations mean for this program? Can we observe any unintended effects (whether positive or negative) of this program?
Your learning agenda can be as informal or elaborate as you need it to be. Think of it as a way to capture the notes, ideas, and questions that arise in your work. You might imagine it as a memo to your future self (who, once you have moved on to the next project, may not remember all the details or discoveries months later) that allows you to document the most essential information about your program.
In addition to the key questions, and to provide context, a basic learning agenda might include:
• Background – a brief description of why you are undertaking this program or initiative
• Design – summary of the project itself: how you developed it, how it will work, who will be involved in running it, etc.
• Assessment – what will you be tracking (e.g., donor retention, membership renewals, audience surveys, etc.)
• Additional comments – staffing, program-related communications, or important considerations.
Next level learning
If you are working on a program that you have designed as a pilot project to test new theories, or one that you expect to be a model to duplicate or disseminate, how you capture and communicate specific learning about your program is by definition an essential part of its value. Developing a pilot project or a model program implies the creation of new knowledge.
In these cases, the evaluative focus expands to include not only any metrics you might be interested in, but also to document the extent to which the specific elements of your program design, implementation, and related circumstances can be transferred to other organizations.
For example, perhaps your organization has been running a successful after-school program, exceeding its goals with an identified population of students. You want to grow, but not necessarily by simply increasing volume. One way to think about growth is through a replicable model.
To share what has made your program successful you will have to show not just that your program works, but how and why. An after-school program in southern California that relies on outdoor activity will likely not be directly transferable to an organization in New England – at least not without considerations for the differences in climate! Here a key question may be: To what extent is the program's effectiveness dependent on the ability to be outdoors? What characteristics of the physical location are important to the program's success? To what extent does the availability of public transportation matter?
Toward a culture of learning
There will be times when your learning agenda will take on greater significance than others, and you will of course need to determine the level of resources you can devote to identifying, documenting, and communicating your key inquiry areas. We so often work in a rapidly-changing, complicated system of inter-dependent systems. Even taking small steps toward clarifying assumptions, documenting questions, and reflecting on the results can provide valuable opportunities for you and stakeholders to better understand your day-to-day work in the context of your long-term goals and ambitions.
Do you use a learning agenda in your organization? How do you build in reflection and learning? I would love to hear from you. Email me at email@example.com.