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One Foundation’s Culture of Learning Enriches a Region

By Tim Schwantes on July 27th, 2016

I was recently at a conference with a nationally-recognizable keynote speaker who I had heard a few times over the past few years. I looked forward to hearing new stories, data, and insights the speaker had gathered and how they tied to the decades of work this person has devoted to the topic. However, despite the growing energy, passion, and innovative approaches across the country around this particular issue, the speaker used the same stories and (now out-of-date) data as in previous years. While the presentation was new to most of the audience, it missed opportunities to lift key connections that are now commonplace in the field, leaving listeners unaware of these new important findings. It was also a disservice to the community members and event planners who took the time and resources to secure this speaker for the event. Sadly, my guess is that you can relate to this experience.

Similar stagnation can happen within communities. If a culture of learning is not in place, leaders and residents can settle into the status quo or refer to antiquated data or out-of-date experiences when making decisions about how to improve a community’s health. This absence of continuous learning can lead to misguided decision-making, overlooked changes in population, culture, and behavior, and even missed opportunities for economic development. Or community leaders, thinking they are insulated from events happening “elsewhere,” may not feel the need to reconsider business as usual until a crisis occurs. In those circumstances, it’s common to adopt a reactive, rather than strategic, mindset. This creates a scramble to get up to date quickly, learn what other communities are doing, and often do so with little time to unpack the nuances or deeper contexts needed to make the best decisions for the entire community.

A culture of learning thrives when foundations, government departments, and residents critically look both inward to their approaches and outward to changing contexts. Active Living By Design (ALBD) works with foundations and local coalitions to help them integrate assessment into all aspects of their work. This doesn’t require a lot of additional time and effort; it is as simple as creating regular practices of learning, like keeping an open ear for what is working; being aware of trends; meeting and learning from unlikely partners; looking for the bright spots; and considering what makes them successful and how to replicate them.

The Danville Regional Foundation (DRF) and the Health Collaborative, which focuses on the Dan River Region, are incorporating a culture of learning into their regular practices. Since the fall of 2014, ALBD has provided technical assistance to DRF and helped with the creation of, and ongoing support to, the Health Collaborative. The region, which crosses city, county, and state lines, requires the foundation and the members of the Health Collaborative to think and learn differently when considering built environment interventions and policy changes in order to meet the diverse health needs of the region’s urban and rural contexts.

DRF is investing both directly and indirectly in the Health Collaborative, and it’s paying off. Creating regular internal practices of learning has helped the coalition to “see the possible,” a common phrase echoed regularly throughout the foundation. Each monthly Collaborative meeting begins with members reporting out on their current work, even if it may not directly relate to the group’s mission. Although it takes extra time, it also allows each person to learn more about what is happening at the regional level. New partnering opportunities have emerged from this simple practice.

As part of a practice of external learning, DRF has also supported site visits for Collaborative members to visit other communities (and in addition to the valuable on-the-ground experience, the travel time is just as important for members to build relationships with each other). Finally, the foundation—and now other organizations that participate in the Health Collaborative—extend invitations for workshop or training opportunities to those outside their traditional networks, because they recognize that their “community” is defined more broadly and that sharing resources builds capacity across the region, which ultimately helps everyone.

And I would like to learn from you. How are you, your organization, your local foundation(s), and your greater community practicing a culture of learning? I’m always curious to soak up what others around the country are doing to build this type of learning into their work, so please share:


Photo: Members from the “access to healthy eating” action team, part of the Health Collaborative, learn about successful approaches at the farmers' market in Durham Central Park, NC. 

Tim Schwantes

Senior Project Officer

Life-long learner, connector, listener, privilege checker, and triathlete.