One Year In, What I’m Learning at WomenStrong
Just over a year ago, as schools and businesses were shutting down across the globe and in my hometown, because of the COVID pandemic, I joined the WomenStrong team.
Taking a leap to a new job in a time of such uncertainty could be considered, well, risky. But, one thing that attracted me to WomenStrong was the shifts it was making, in adapting its own grantmaking to the needs of women-driven organizations. With nearly two decades of experience working in the nonprofit and grantmaking sector, I was ready (and eager!) to see how things could be different, even during a crisis.
What if, as a grantmaker, you listen to women, trust in their solutions, and give them what they need to meet the challenges of their communities? What could be different if, as a grantee, you were, in fact, trusted and given the resources you needed, to advance progress without overly cumbersome reporting requirements? And, what would be possible if your organization was part of a true learning community, with others doing similar work in different contexts and settings?
These are some of the key questions guiding WomenStrong’s work — questions that our Knowledge + Learning Team set out to answer through a recent evaluation. The evaluation shows WomenStrong’s early adaptations to COVID realities are paying off.
You’ll definitely want to read their two evaluation briefs to get a true sense of what WomenStrong has learned during our first year of operating our new Learning Lab during the pandemic, but here are some key takeaways that caught my attention:
Personalized recruitment builds trust and invites bigger, bolder project ideas
To form our Learning Lab, the core of WomenStrong’s approach, WomenStrong intentionally recruits organizations ready to engage in peer-learning, rather than accept unsolicited proposals. This recruitment process involves extensive, upfront research by our team, followed by individual conversations with potential partners. Once a “fit” is determined, WomenStrong works collaboratively with potential grantees on their proposals — this co-creation process helps to build relationship and mutual trust, while also helping partners refine their projects, in some cases resulting in bigger, bolder ideas.
Flexibility and trust make a world of difference
WomenStrong is a learning organization and as such, perpetually evaluates all aspects of our work, including how we do ours. We know our partners carry a heavy load, and we want to support them in their own work, not add to it. While we’ve been trying to operate this way since the get-go, it is, it turns out, a continuous learning process and evolution.
When COVID-19 hit, it became crystal clear that WomenStrong needed to make more adjustments to its approach. When I joined last year, WomenStrong was swiftly transitioning all grants from restricted to unrestricted, reducing reporting requirements, and committing to adding additional years of funding. These steps gave grantee partners the flexibility to do the work they deemed most important amidst this unanticipated crisis.
First and foremost, this quick action meant partners could focus on meeting the emerging, critical needs of their communities. As it turns out, this action, and the trust it affirmed, gave partners a “feeling of intense relief” that made a world of difference in their day-to-day work.
A learning community yields new ideas
Bringing partners together in a Learning Lab where they can be in community together and learn from each other works, even in the midst of a global crisis. COVID-19 sent most of WomenStrong’s Learning Lab plans were sidelined, but we listened to what partners said they needed from the Lab, such as self-care support, and guidance in adapting their programming during lockdowns, and our evaluation shows this approach paid off. In fact, most of the partners reported that they had gained knowledge or skills from the Lab — and half have already applied these learnings to their work.
One of the most exciting aspects of being part of WomenStrong is that our learnings don’t just sit in a vault. Being a learning organization means that we continuously reflect on our learnings and make changes in how we work, even if these shifts challenge our assumptions. In the words of my colleague and one of the authors, Mara Steinhaus, “We know that we don’t have it ‘perfect’ yet, and we never will, but the freedom to always be learning is powerful, and we hope to pass that power on to our grantee partners, too.”
It turns out that joining WomenStrong was risky, but it was a good kind of risk. The kind where you learn and grow, alongside your colleagues, as you figure out how to make progress together. And at WomenStrong, our grantee partners have been part of that journey, as well.
I invite you to read these, and to dive a little deeper into what we’ve learned so far — and how what we’ve learned informs our path forward:
What We are Learning: Reflections on Year One of WomenStrong’s Learning Lab