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How to get the most out of a learning partnership

By Michelle Man 17 September 2021 6 minute read

At NPC, we act as a learning partner to a wide range of funders, non-profits, and networks, supporting them to generate and share learning from their work. From our partnerships with the Baring Foundation, the Health Foundation, the UK Democracy Fund, the Youth Investment Fund, and others, we’ve learned a lot about what makes a good learning partnership and I wanted to share some ideas to help others get the most out of their learning partnerships. This blog explores what learning partnerships are, what they can do for you, and why you might want to commission a learning partner.


What are learning partnerships?

There are different definitions of what a learning partnership is. Better Evaluation suggests they ‘involve structured processes … to support learning between a defined number of organisations working on similar programs’. However, we’ve seen requests for learning partnerships from individual organisations that want someone to support them with their own evaluation and learning. Sometimes requests outline a more light-touch relationship, with less evaluation involved.

Learning partnerships therefore come in different shapes and sizes and there is no one size fits all approach. They can have a range of aims and functions. One learning partnership might aim to identify recommendations for an organisation’s future strategy. Another might be commissioned by a funder to support knowledge sharing between grantees. Learning partnerships can also be with different types of partner—for example, with a funding organisation, a project, a network, or a cause area. Participants in the learning can vary—for example, a learning partnership may facilitate learning for a funder and its grantees, or it may bring in delivery partners. Intended audiences may also differ, with learning partnerships seeking to influence different stakeholders—from internal stakeholders through to policymakers and the wider public.


What can a learning partner do?

We’ve identified three key functions of a learning partner:

  • Enabling learning: A learning partner can support people to identify insights from evidence and to build an understanding of what this means for future work.
  • Analysing learning: A learning partner can help make sense of evidence and synthesise the lessons that emerge from learning activities and discussions between participants.
  • Sharing learning: A learning partner can help to share lessons learned and good practice with a wide range of audiences—such as other actors in the sector, policymakers, and the wider public—considering the implications for each audience and tailoring the messages accordingly.

We find that these functions are usually supported and then sustained by three factors:

  • Capacity for learning: We work with people to ensure they have the right knowledge, skills, and attributes. We support participants with different learning styles to engage meaningfully—for example, some participants may be visual learners while others may prefer reading and writing. Some may respond well to conceptual frameworks while others may find practical case studies more useful. Participants may prefer to learn individually or in groups.
  • Systems and processes: We support organisations to develop the infrastructure and activities needed to enable and share learning. For example, reflective sessions and shared spaces for asynchronous knowledge exchange can support learning for participants. Learning partners may also focus on developing networks to disseminate learning.
  • A culture that supports learning and improvement: We work to build a culture that encourages honest and open reflection. This is crucial because participants need to feel that they can share things honestly, and the learning partner must be able to provide honest and independent challenge.

Diagram shows 'Enabling learning' 'Analysing learning' and 'Sharing learning' coming together with 'Building capacity' 'building culture' and 'building systems and processes' to form a circle.

A PDF version of this diagram can be accessed here.


How is learning different to evaluation?

Across the charity sector, we are increasingly making the distinction between evaluation and learning. My remit at NPC focuses on both—because evaluation often works best when combined with learning. But what is the difference between the two? And how do you know if you need an evaluation or learning partner?

In my view, the key distinction is that evaluation is diagnostic while learning is about making sense of evidence for action. Evaluation seeks to assess whether and how something is working, while learning helps to ground that in practice and establish how to use the information to improve. The ideal scenario is to have good interaction between iterative evaluation work, to surface findings, and ongoing learning activity, which is informed by your evaluation’s findings.

With that in mind, are learning partners inherently different to evaluators? Keira Lowther has written a blog about this, which usefully highlights how traditional evaluations can be inflexible, overly influenced by specific stakeholders, and not supportive of improvements in practice. However, I don’t see evaluation and learning as necessarily separate and distinct from each other. Formative evaluation, developmental evaluation and participatory evaluation all have an explicit learning angle. At their core, evaluators and learning partners both focus on identifying and consolidating insights, and sharing their findings. However, there can be strong advantages to commissioning a learning partner instead of, or alongside, an evaluator.


Why commission a learning partner?

My take is that the rise of learning partnerships in the charity sector represents a welcome shift towards deeper learning and improvement. The sector is re-focusing on the ‘learning’ within ‘monitoring, evaluation, and learning’ because evaluation can be seen as distant or disinterested, and focused on objective appraisal of activities and impact. The learning partner is felt to be closer to the commissioner and ‘on their side’, in a sense helping to see things from their perspective.

An explicit focus on ‘learning’ helps ensure that evaluations get reflected on, made sense of, and translated into practical implications. A learning partnership can also help to clarify roles and functions. For example, an evaluator on a project may analyse and report findings, while a learning partner on the same project could support the translation of evidence into insights for future decisions, and facilitate discussions with the wider sector. Similarly, when conducting primary research, people may be more willing to talk openly with a learning partner compared with an evaluator, because ‘learning’ signals a constructive and practical intent compared with ‘evaluation’.

At NPC, evidence and learning are critical to our vision for the charity sector. Decisions should be based on meaningful evidence, and the sector must learn, improve and innovate on this basis. But how you do something matters as much as what you do, and we also need to care about how evidence and insights are generated and applied to decisions.

Learning partnerships and evaluations can be powerful tools for learning and improvement, with each bringing different benefits and opportunities. The key to success lies in how you approach this work. If you’re considering whether a learning partnership could be right for you or you’re looking for advice on learning, get in touch with Michelle via her email or on Twitter via @MichelleLKMan. You can also read more about our approach to consultancy here.


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