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IssueLab at 10: The Technology and Art of Sharing Knowledge

June 13, 2016

Earlier this year, Foundation Center president Brad Smith noted that producing knowledge is one of the most important but least-developed sources of foundation influence.

Issuelab_splashI couldn't agree more. But as one of the staff responsible for managing the center’s IssueLab knowledge-sharing service, I can testify that it’s not because there's a lack of knowledge being produced by foundations. It's because too many of the evaluations, case studies, and reports produced by the sector never get shared or only reach a limited audience.

This week we are relaunching the IssueLab platform to address the problem head on. While the redesign has given us an opportunity to rework the platform's technology in a way that will enable us to more efficiently scale our efforts in the years to come, one of the most important things to come out of the process has been a much-needed reminder of how and why researchers, nonprofits, and funders use the site.

A New Approach to Synthesis

Consider the humble synthesis report. As an incredibly valuable but not yet widely adopted tool in the foundation toolbox, the synthesis report is an excellent example of what’s possible when foundations share — and apply — lessons learned from past projects.

Issuelab_freshwater_tweetOver the last couple of years, IssueLab has worked closely with the Rockefeller Foundation to synthesize existing evidence with respect to two critical issues: the management of sustainable fisheries and the use of incentive-based tools for managing fresh water globally. Both reviews were based on hundreds of reports from nonprofits and foundations — exactly the kind of reports Brad Smith refers to in his post and that IssueLab collects every day. Caroline Kronley, managing director for strategy at Rockefeller, had this to say about the value of synthesis reviews:

At the Rockefeller Foundation, we build our initiatives around promising solutions that make the best use of our and others’ resources. We can't do this well without understanding what’s already been tried — both successfully and less so. Synthesis reviews help us focus our efforts where they will have the greatest potential for impact.

And Nancy MacPherson, managing director for evaluation at Rockefeller and Kronley's colleague, put her finger on another important dimension of syntheses, and of IssueLab more generally.

It really is a commitment to a balanced look at what works as seen through a broader spectrum of interests and perspective. It also helps us test our assumptions about what works and why in a timely and manageable way. In addition, Issue Lab makes all the source data for each synthesis review available to others to take further, reanalyze, and build on as a public good. This is a huge contribution to the field. I don’t know of any other synthesis review process that does that.

In other words, synthesis reviews, which both draw on and are added to the IssueLab collection, enable researchers, foundations, and nonprofits to build on evidence from a broader base of practice-based knowledge than they might normally use.

A Much-Needed Approach to Knowledge Sharing

What was underscored for us again and again during the redesign process is that synthesis projects like the ones mentioned above are quite literally the tip of the iceberg.

IssueLab is relaunching with almost 20,000 resources in 38 different issue areas from 7,000+ organizations around the world. Almost every one of these resources includes a lesson that was learned. Many of them were funded directly by foundations. Together, they represent one of the greatest assets possessed by the social sector. But only if we share them.

By design, IssueLab is a democratic space. We accept any data-driven work that includes complete citations and references as long as it is published or funded by a social sector organization, foundation, or university-based research center and is free and accessible to the public. Which means that 20,000 is just a start!

Now that we've upgraded the technology, I'm eager to see the sector embrace IssueLab as a learning space, whether that means discovering a single report that casts a critical issue in a whole new light or stumbling on a well-executed synthesis of hundreds of reports. I encourage you to create an account and share what your organization is learning. Who knows what someone else might do with that knowledge?

I also invite you to share with me by email or in the comments section below how you use IssueLab to share research, whether it’s your own or someone else’s.

Gabriela Fitz is director of knowledge management initiatives at Foundation Center and a co-founder of IssueLab.

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