Common Questions about Collaborative Inquiry

How can a true learning partnership among peers be created when one of the partners distributes the funds and others receive them?

Trust is essential, and trust is built over time as people see that others can be relied on to do what they said they would do. Budgets need to provide enough time for knowledge-gathering and reflection; participants have to practice the necessary patience. It is also important that foundations guarantee something of true value to the participating organizations in the collaborative. “They are giving you their work,” said one program officer. In return, she tries to help grantees open doors and develop relationships with the world of philanthropy.

Some advocates of collaborative learning say “eliminate the experts.” But then, in come the consultant researchers and evaluators. Aren’t they “experts”?

The goal, in most cases, is not to eliminate expertise, but to eliminate exclusive roles for expert authority – intellectual fiefdoms that end up excluding people with non-academic backgrounds or credentials, or treating them as consumers of knowledge, rather than producers. In one initiative, a successful evaluator had clearly made an equal commitment to the production of knowledge and the development of knowledge producers among participating practitioners. It was an authentic partnership. “We gave the raw data back to the organizations so they could participate in the analysis,” said the evaluator.

When is the collaborative approach not appropriate?

It is probably not as useful when the practices in a field are already long established, there is broad agreement on what methods work best, and the purpose of monitoring and evaluation is mainly to ensure quality control.

What should a grantmaker know going in?

  • Know your foundation, know your role, and stay in it. Your relationships will be more honest, effective, and comfortable if they’re based on reality.
  • Manage in such a way that people have choices; be honest so they can make informed choices; and expect to fall short now and then. “There will be misunderstandings, and you’ll get challenged in any case,” said a program officer. “You have to be okay with it.”
  • Find participants who are ready to learn and share what they know. Not every organization is at a stage of development where it is willing to reexamine its own assumptions, especially in front of a funder.
  • Invest money to make it possible for participants to take the time to learn from one another. Money and time are essential.
  • Be open to unanticipated learning and ready for the process to evolve.

What should grantseekers know going in?

  • Take ownership of the process; it is you and your staff, your organization, and your field of work that have the chance to learn and grow.
  • Remember that it is a collective process, and there will be compromises. But give honest feedback and expect it to be listened to and respected.
  • In difficult situations, find ways to be heard. Grantees in one learning collaborative instituted a system for anonymous feedback that got them through a rough period.
  • Seek, with integrity and clarity, outcomes that are useful both for your own organization and for the rest of your field.
  • Take the tools of learning that are offered and adapt them to your organization. Make use of the learning process itself – don’t just wait to see the end result.
  • Finally, expect honesty from your grantmaker, but don’t forget that she or he reports back to an institution, just as you do.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Learning Together.