Research Project: Scan and Analysis - Overview of Learning Communities

RCLA is conducting a scan of research and practice on learning communities on behalf of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, GEO. Learning communities (also known as “communities of practice” or “learning networks”) are made up of peers who are interested to learn together on a sustained basis, to deepen their practice or address common challenges.

This research is part of GEO’s multi-year initiative, Scaling What Works that aims “to expand the number of grantmakers and public sector funders across the country that are prepared to broaden the impact of high-performing nonprofits.” Through this program GEO plans to educate its members and partners and engage them in collective practices with the goal of creating an ever growing knowledgeable and ready network that can effectively bring about greater impact and sustainability.

RCLA and GEO are focusing this research effort on gaining a deeper understanding of learning communities as practical devices, grantmaking strategies, or vehicles designed and employed to enable a defined group of nonprofit organizations or grantmakers to increase their effectiveness and impact. Through this project, GEO hopes to learn more about the design elements, practices, approaches, goals and associated outcomes of learning communities in the nonprofit and philanthropic fields. GEO will use these insights to educate grantmakers so they can “best support collective learning among their grantees and advance the field of practice in their area(s) of interest.”

The research which will be finalized in February 2012 will give GEO and its network a solid understanding of learning communities, including promising and proven approaches to creating and facilitating learning communities. RCLA’s approach includes a literature review, key informant interviews and mini case studies of relevant learning communities. The resulting report will offer practical suggestions for GEO’s work on learning communities and then serve as the basis for a learning summit to move the learning into action.

RCLA recognizes the importance of collaboration and values deep engagement with practitioners in all its work. The project began with a kick-off co-design meeting with key stakeholders at GEO to clearly define a set of guiding questions for the research that are relevant to GEO’s work and methodologies and to identify a set of key informants with whom RCLA will conduct initial interviews. After the initial literature review, RCLA and GEO will together identify up to six learning communities to study. In order to understand deeply both the experience and impact of a learning community, RCLA will conduct interviews with participants, staff and facilitators of the six selected communities. The final report will include a summary of findings, broader insights from the field, interview results and specific recommendations for GEO.