Intentional Learning and Disrupting Norms: Four Takeaways from the 2019 GEO Learning Conference


To better integrate learning into all aspects of our work, we as evaluators need to remove the barriers to learning, find ways to spark creativity, and lean into what gives us energy.

Last week, several members of the Engage R+D team presented and participated in the 2019 Learning Conference in Seattle, sponsored by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) and Philanthropy Northwest. This year’s conference focused on intentional learning practices and brought together a dynamic group of hundreds of learning and evaluation staff from foundations across the country and around the world. While we don’t aim to lift up insights from all of the sessions, we’d like to share four key takeaways that resonate with our practice and inspire our thinking.

1. Cultivating curiosity and creativity:

Come into communities because you think we have the answers, not because you think we have the problems.
— Abigail Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board

Kicking off the conference, leadership consultant Lisa Slavid shared the science behind how creativity and curiosity work together to enable transformative learning. This often begins with asking curious questions, holding space for deep listening, and suspending what we “know” – to open ourselves to learning new ideas and concepts. Appreciative inquiry is a powerful way to surface ideas and perspectives that focus on solutions and assets rather than problems and deficits. Like design thinking, which puts people at the center of the work, appreciative inquiry invites a different kind of dialogue that promotes discovery, sparks creative thinking, and engages people in learning and problem solving. As learning and evaluation practitioners, what we ask, how we frame our questions, and whom we engage with truly matters --and appreciative inquiry is a practice that should be in everyone’s toolkit.

2. Shifting mental models and disrupting the status quo:

Evaluation can be a tool to keep the status quo… If we love evaluation, we have to make it better.
— Efrain Gutierrez, Obama Foundation

Someone once said that we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Numerous presenters talked about the need to dismantle the way we work and to create space to work differently. As noted above, this includes the questions we ask, the words we use, and the ways we engage with funders, stakeholders, and the community. The role of evaluation professionals is evolving, but we still have miles to travel before we free ourselves from old mental models and unlearn ingrained habits. An important place to start is shifting the nature of relationships between funders and evaluators to be more relational and less transactional. This means engaging as partners who are accountable to each other and to the issues we seek to resolve. This also necessitates partnering with communities to ensure their values and voice permeate evaluation and that evaluation isn’t used as a tool to maintain the status quo.

3. Honoring the power of stories, truth-telling, and narrative change:

When we find solutions that work for the most vulnerable communities, we find solutions that work for everyone.
— Glenn Harris, Race Forward

Authentic listening means slowing down and holding space for storytelling and multiple truths. As Hahn Cao Yu of The California Endowment reminds us, social change often “moves at the speed of trust” and trust comes from truth-telling. Truth-telling also plays a crucial role in countering dominant narratives. Unlike the current narrative that promotes “nostalgia for the past and fear of the future,” we need to seek ways to promote a narrative of inclusion and a sense of belonging. As evaluators, we have an opportunity and obligation to create and hold this space and to lift up the voices of community in authentic and meaningful ways. Through our work, we can contribute to change by advocating to ensure marginalized and underrepresented communities have the chance to heal and prosper through stories.

4. Diversity, equity, and inclusion and measuring what matters:

Glenn Harris of Race Forward reminds us that nearly 250 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we are still struggling to build a just, multiracial democratic society. As a sector, we also are still grappling with how to truly center equity in our work, let alone how to measure it. It’s complicated but, as several conference speakers echoed, we have to measure the things we value. To start, we need to be clear about what we mean by terms like power, systems change, and equity before we can endeavor to measure progress. Vanessa Daniel of Groundswell Fund also urged us to track demographics, use relevant metrics, and right size and honor evaluation work. More food-for-thought came from Harris who posits that diversity is a measure of quantity (different identities and cultures), inclusion is a measure of quality (participation across identities and culture), and equity is a measure of justice (policies, practices, and procedures to ensure equitable outcomes).

There is an inherent tension in truly transformative change. It’s easy to lean into what energizes us but we also need to lean into what makes us uncomfortable. As evaluators and learning partners, how do we respond to the urgency to resolve complex social issues while holding space for trust-building, truth-telling, and intentional learning? The GEO Learning Conference created yet another critical venue for learning and unpacking tough questions with other evaluation colleagues in the philanthropic sector. We are grateful to be connected to this community of people who continually seek to do good better, and remain steadfast in our commitment to hold space, support intentional learning, and reimagine our evaluative practice.