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How Collaborative Learning Can Make Organizations Smarter, Stronger, and Better Positioned to Scale: A Q&A with Andrew Wolk and Wendy Yallowitz

December 04, 2012

Collab_learning_thumbnail_319_319Andrew Wolk is founder of Root Cause,
a nonprofit research and consulting firm that partners with nonprofits, philanthropy, government, and business to advance solutions to today's toughest social issues, and Wendy Yallowitz is a program officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Vulnerable Populations Portfolio, which supports social innovations with the potential to grow to scale. For almost two years, Root Cause helped guide RWJF grantee More Than Wheels, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps people get the best deal on a reliable and fuel-efficient car, through a facilitated merger exploration with Ways to Work, a Milwaukee-based community development financial institution that provides short-term low-interest loans to working poor families with challenging credit histories -- a merger that ultimately failed to materialize. From the process, however, Root Cause and RWJF developed a "collaborative learning" framework that allowed both organizations to learn from each other and emerge with stronger, smarter strategies than they would have on their own. The lessons learned are available in "Collaborative Learning: A Case Study on More Than Wheels and Ways to Work," which is available as a as a downloadable PDF from the RWJF site bookstore.

In the following Q&A, Andrew and Wendy shed light on how collaborative learning turned a failed merger exploration into a success. A version of this post originally appeared on the Foundation Center's Transparency Talk blog.

Transparency Talk: What is collaborative learning, and what are its origins?

Andrew Wolk: It's an intentional effort between two organizations to exchange, analyze, and apply knowledge that will lead to better outcomes. More specifically, collaborative learning is a structured, facilitated learning process that allows for in-depth knowledge exchange without the organizational and cultural challenges of mergers. Based on a four-step framework, the process can serve as an alternative to merger discussions -- or a "plan B" in the middle of merger talks that aren't working out.

Wendy Yallowitz: It's a good time for this type of framework. When you consider how nonprofits continue to grow in number and are continually asked to do more with less, it's more common for foundations to encourage similar organizations to figure out whether there's a way to optimize resources. Hence, we're seeing more merger explorations like the one we pursued with More Than Wheels and Ways to Work.

AW: As for origins, this potential merger brought about the framework. We know from past experience merger talks can present huge barriers, and we were running into some of those things. At a certain point, we decided to take an approach whereby we lifted the pressure of mergers or formal collaborations and partnerships as expectations so that the two organizations could work together to solve problems and grapple with strategic questions.

TT: What are the benefits of collaborative learning?

AW: Collaborative learning can accelerate knowledge very quickly in a resource-efficient way, provided both organizations are mutually investing in sharing and learning. We built the framework around four phases, starting with an assessment of need wherein you ask whether it would be beneficial to look inside another organization to address your own challenges. You have to be willing to look inward at your own gaps in knowledge and share information. So right off the bat, entering this phase pushes you to evolve in some way.

From there you move to establishing trust and facilitation by a neutral third party, which entails conversations, adherence to a collaborative learning scope of work, and relying on a facilitator to help set and make progress against goals. Next is an in-depth exchange and analysis of knowledge -- in the case of More Than Wheels and Ways to Work, that involved an immersive exchange of client profiles, program and financial models, and how success is measured. Last up is application of knowledge to challenges faced, which involves applying what you learned to the challenges that originally brought you to the table and perhaps other areas.

WY: What ended up being really key was facilitation of the learning. If you really want it to work and be more than just an information-gathering exercise, you need a facilitator. Root Cause was able to pull out themes and lessons by asking, "What did we learn from this?" They ensured ideas and opportunities would be carried out.

TT: How does collaborative learning relate to scaling?

WY: This is about scaling impact collaboratively, working with a similar organization that also wants to grow beyond its challenges. For example, as a result of these conversations, Terri [Steingrebe, CEO of More Than Wheels] was able to look at her strategy and see more than one way to scale More Than Wheels. Their initial model was to open physical offices where they saw a need, and that's evolved after assessing Ways to Work's affiliate model. Through a new partnership-based model, More Than Wheels can increase the number of people they serve without needing to establish a new client base in new communities or set up new offices. All in all, they expect to lower per-client costs by 40 percent.

Likewise, Ways to Work gained appreciation for More Than Wheels' one-on-one consumer counseling and financial education and went on to establish an online financial education course for clients, set higher expectations for financial fitness and education before loan approval, and -- based on More Than Wheels' success -- increased loan amounts beyond original estimates.

TT: Why should funders consider supporting grantees interested in participating in collaborative learning?

WY: RWJF has worked to connect grantees interested in talking about opportunities to work together, but collaborative learning adds a layer of purpose, with goals and outcomes very much part of the mix. So, at the end of the day, we see this as a long-term cost-effective way to build capacity among those grantees for whom this is an appropriate option. And funding the process, of course, contributes greatly to providing the resources needed to explore a merger and engage in collaborative learning.

A by-product of this process was building trust with our grantee. I encouraged Terri to have the conversation but did not push her to merge -- that was never a rigid expectation. She never felt awkward coming to me with honest feedback. It helped me gain a real appreciation for the collaborative learning process.

AW: What we're seeing is more organizations that want to learn from each other. We believe there’s a fundamental culture beginning to build around performance for impact. The nonprofit sector should be having these conversations because, in the end, it's about whether there's impact.

TT: Thanks for sharing the case study. Potential mergers and collaborations are often shrouded in secrecy, and the same is true of failed foundation experiments. Why do you think it's important to bring these efforts to light?

WY: RWJF has long been committed to sharing the results of our work with the field, whether those results represented success or failure. We release grantee results reports and evaluation findings as a matter of routine, but I agree that process results such as those stemming from merger and collaboration attempts often are not approached with the same spirit of transparency. In this case, the deep exchange of information about the models we were looking to merge resulted in a wealth of learnings, including important signals that a merger might not be the right fit for either group. That wasn't viewed as a loss or a wasted effort; rather, it opened our eyes to new possibilities for each group in terms of their models and growth strategies. And wWe believe it's important to share those learnings widely in hopes they prove to be of value to other funders and nonprofits that are wrestling with the challenges associated with growing to scale.

-- Natasha Isajlovic-Terry

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