Learning is one of those buzzwords isn’t it. We’re all supposed to be doing it, we’re all supposed to be sharing it.

©iStockphoto.com/Media Mates Oy

©iStockphoto.com/Media Mates Oy

I always get asked to evaluate how well NGOs do it and share it.  And yet there are some trends that I’ve observed:

  1. Very few NGOs actually share their learning, and of those that do only a handful can tell you whether other NGOs are actually reading and using that learning in their own work to improve their approaches.
  2. Most NGOs can demonstrate learning internally through documents, web portals, training sessions, etc.  But learning doesn’t always stick.  Why do we have to keep learning?  Why doesn’t the learning always get integrated into how we work?
  3. Some of the most impactful and innovating NGOs have no learning strategy and never share learning externally (apart from their global country offices)

So what’s going on?  I suspect it is actually quite straightforward:

  1. NGOs that are excellent at internal communication and team working, don’t need to do learning artificially, it is already happening as part of the communication and team working that the NGO is focused on;
  2. Learning strategies are more important where there is a high turn over of staff, often related to time-limited project or restricted funding.  If the team that you have in place is only there for three to five years and then has to disband because the funding you rely on has come to an end, then you will need to put in place artificial learning strategies to help retain the knowledge that will leave when the team has to leave.

So is learning only important in less sustainable NGOs or in those that rely heavily on restricted or project funding?  Is the real problem an over-reliance on funding that doesn’t allow NGOs to retain staff longer term or to plan for the longer term, thereby requiring an artificial learning culture or learning structure to ensure longer-term sustainability?

And if an NGO has to constantly learn and sometimes relearn, how sustainable is it really?

I know some of you might be scratching your heads as it wasn’t so long ago that I was saying that learning along the lines of continuous professional development was important and needed to be done.  I still agree with that, and I do continuous professional development myself.  But staff development is different from a learning policy that focuses on learning from activities and projects.  It is the latter artificial process that has had me scratching my head recently.

What do you think?  Do you have a learning policy?  Is learning important in your NGO?  How is learning done (if at all) in your organisation?


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