Michael Mapstone: Is your charity embracing new ways of learning?

13 Sep 2017 Expert insight

Charities need to embrace learning in all levels of the organisation to find the most effective ways of working, Charities Aid Foundation's Michael Mapstone says.

Learning isn’t a luxury. In order to adapt and thrive in a constantly changing environment, learning needs to be embedded at an individual, team and organisation level. But learning needn’t be restricted to expensive, face-to-face training. In fact, traditional models are sometimes inadequate to equip us with the skills we need to run organisations in complex environments.

1) Learning from within:

Taking time to reflect and think things through can be a valuable investment in your organisation. Closing projects or major pieces of work with a ‘no blame’, honest and objective review of lessons learned, can provide high quality learning points that can help to replicate successes and avoid repeating our failures.

Team meetings should be structured to give everyone a genuine opportunity to contribute and be listened to (this happens less frequently than we may think!). On a one to-one basis, a coaching approach can draw out solutions from within individuals and build their skills and confidence – it just takes patience and time. This type of ‘thinking environment’ can be incorporated into our day-to-day interactions with colleagues to enhance organisational learning.

2) Learning from others:

The experience of others can have a huge influence on our organisational learning. For many, this can mean establishing formal and informal links with other teams in the organisation. This can range from simple lunch and learn sessions, to developing peer networks with a supportive environment and fostering alternative perspectives to explore real and current workplace challenges, and opportunities to cross team and/or departmental away days.

For the CAF Global Alliance, we regularly bring together (virtually and physically) colleagues from all over the world. 

Much of the value comes from spending time together, discussing  successes, challenges and – most importantly – their failures. But often really effective learning comes from ‘doing’.  Regularly, our offices are working together on specific projects.

There is a richness in skills development and transfer that comes from practical, experiential learning that cannot be achieved by conversation alone. In both cases, it is significant that this learning comes from people who are not ‘people like us’. Learning from organisations with a different culture, context, skills and experience can shift us from our normal perspective and make us see problems, and solutions, from a fresh angle.

3) Learning from our constituents:

The most important people to learn from are those we work for – our donors, our clients, our beneficiaries, our wider stakeholders. What are they telling us about our service and their current and future needs? How are we integrating that into our day-to-day governance and management, as well as our future strategy and planning? How do we ensure we are asking for, listening to and acting on regular feedback?

Wings (Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support) is a membership organisation that conducts regular research among its global membership, so it can truly understand – and advocate effectively for – its constituency, as well as ensuring that its services are suited to its members’ needs. The availability of free tools such as Skype and SurveyMonkey means that this type of engagement can be very affordable.

4) Learning as a two-way process:

It is as important to give as to take. Sharing our learning with others can also enhance our own learning – articulating our experience to someone who is unfamiliar with our work can help us to view it from a different angle, find new reflections and refine the way we present our organisations and our work to the outside world. Sharing ideas and learning around how charities achieve success is one of the most effective and economical ways to find new and better ways of working.

Michael Mapstone is head of the CAF Global Alliance at Charities Aid Foundation

Civil Society wishes to thank Charities Aid Foundation for its support with this article

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