Learning log by Shama Dossa, MEL Manager
Fenomenal Funds would like to acknowledge the contributions to the article’s analysis from the following Learning and Evaluation Working Group members: Amy Arbreton (Hewlett Foundation), Diana Medina (Fondo Semillas), Nancy Akanbombire (Prospera Secretariat), Nina Madsen (Open Society Foundations), and Zanele Sibanda (Fenomenal Funds).
“Learning something is a creative act in itself—it reveals new aspects of the world, and thus it enables the world to become something more than it was.…The process of learning itself is the path of becoming” (Kaplan, 2022, p. 78).
Consciously embarking on a path to learning across virtual spaces and multiple time zones with people you have never met can be a daunting task. However, despite its challenges, doing this collectively for the Learning and Evaluation Working Group (L&E WG) of the Steering Committee at Fenomenal Funds (FF) has been an experience in meaningful feminist collaboration. In our case, this implies praxis: a way to come together to think, reflect, and act, drawing on feminist principles. Together, we have attempted to disrupt hegemonic and extractive approaches to knowledge production and labor; facilitate our individual and collective learning; and put trust in each other to initiate a process of shared decision-making, practicing reciprocity and exercising “power with,” despite power differences among the membership.
It has been an inspirational experience for me as the Feminist Learning and Evaluation Manager for Fenomenal Funds, working with members of the L&E WG and coordinating the process. Learning has been at the core of Fenomenal Funds’s work and with a particular emphasis on emergent learning. Emergence is about more than simply finding adaptable solutions or course correction. Emergence is a process by which, through many interactions (in our case, interactions between and among women’s funds members of the Prospera International Network of Women’s Funds [INWF], funding partners, Prospera Secretariat staff, and Fenomenal Funds staff), we co-create patterns through a synergistic process that are more sophisticated than what could have been created by an individual. According to Darling, Guber, Smith, & Stiles (2016), this requires sharing a common vision and having “the freedom to experiment with the best pathways to get there” (p. 61). In this context, learning happens by “interacting with one another” (Darling et al., 2016, p. 61). They explain how this process reframes learning: “From an Emergent Learning perspective, a group has learned only when people are conscious of their thinking, notice their results, reflect on those results, change their thinking and actions—and when their new thinking and actions produce better results, even as circumstances change” (Darling et al., 2016, p. 64).
This learning log provides examples of how learning is emerging through our journey. A learning log is a space to document and reflect on what the L&E WG set out to do, what actions we took, what we were able to change, and what further innovations we would like to bring in our actions to achieve our goals as a group. The purpose of writing this learning log is to invite a wider circle of actors into the process, making thinking visible to encourage a learning dialogue.
Fenomenal Funds as a feminist funder collaborative aims to strengthen the feminist-funding ecosystem by resourcing women’s funds members of the Prospera INWF. Women’s funds / feminist funds, as philanthropic actors, provide financial and other support to advance the human rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI people in countries around the world. Fenomenal Funds is a bold experiment that provides flexible, core, long-term funding. And as a funding mechanism, we combine pooled funding, shared governance, and participatory grantmaking (see our Theory of Transformation for more details on our model). Through this approach, the stakeholders involved (women’s fund / feminist fund members of the Prospera INWF, the Prospera Secretariat, our funding partners, and Fenomenal Funds staff) are interacting in a power-sharing process. Our initiative is designed to support women’s funds to invest in their own institutional and organizational needs—strengthening infrastructure, leadership, safety and well-being, communications, fundraising, learning, and other efforts they choose as priorities that position them to maximize their impact and achieve their goals. In doing so, we hope WFs are able to deepen investments in their own organizational strengths and capacity to respond to the needs of the feminist movements they are a part of.
In our path to becoming the Learning and Evaluation Working Group, we have seen many serendipitous aha moments, as well as many bumps, twists, and turns, and we expect many more as part of our journey. Our story is complex, but it aims to highlight our as a group and is grounded in our experiences of collaboration.
The L&E WG was initiated in April 2022 out of a practical need to have a sounding board and an oversight body to support the work of learning with Fenomenal Funds. On reflection, I think when we formed the group, we were perhaps unsure on how the process would unfold, but we did have aspirations for a participatory and collaborative engagement. The L&E WG, in a way, is an extension of FF’s overall experiment in shared governance, applied to our learning and evaluation as an experiment. By shared governance, we mean shifting the power of decision-making from funders to a more equitable approach where all stakeholders sit together at the same table to engage in shared decision-making, sensemaking, and self-reflexive learning processes. In the case of the L&E WG, we are learning to draw on shared governance to practice implementing our co-created learning strategy. We hope this approach will demonstrate an example of how we are aligning our feminist values to all aspects of our model.
The L&E WG is a standing committee for the duration of this five-year collaboration. It is composed of six members and has representation of both women’s funds / feminist funds (WF/FF) and funding partners (FP) with an interest and expertise in learning and evaluation (L&E). It also has representation from the Prospera INWF Secretariat and is coordinated by the Feminist L&E Manager at Fenomenal Funds. Two members of the L&E WG (one WF and one FP) are also members of Fenomenal Funds’s Steering Committee (SC) to ensure the SC is engaged in the process and the members also report back to the SC. The L&E WG meets monthly (or more frequently when needed) and is responsible for providing guidance on the development and implementation of the learning strategy, giving technical input on L&E, supporting the identification of Learning Partners, and making recommendations to the Steering Committee on any key strategic decisions related to L&E.
How Did We Start and How Did the Process Evolve?
Initially, when we formed the L&E WG, members were new to each other, and we had to establish a rhythm to work together. We began by providing feedback on the terms of reference for the L&E WG and to Fenomenal Funds’s Theory of Transformation, learning agenda, and learning strategy. We began to build relationships of trust, share our vision, share wisdom, and offer each other support in taking forward our mandate.
We spent significant time developing and finalizing our learning strategy through an iterative process of participatory engagement with representatives of our key stakeholders. The strategy draws on a with a clear vision set out to guide Fenomenal Funds’s ongoing process of inquiry, documentation, synthesis of insights, and learning to improve how we work, while also sharing our knowledge more broadly.
The next step has been operationalizing the learning strategy. One of FF’s learning questions in our strategy is to explore the question: what will it take to strengthen the individual infrastructure and collective ecosystem of women’s funds members of the Prospera INWF? We are interested with our partners in learning what our particular approach to participatory grantmaking means to WFs and how it has made a difference to them individually and collectively.
To do this, Fenomenal Funds bifurcated roles. Some aspects of our strategy were implemented in-house by FF staff. However, we also felt the need for support from external Learning Partners who could bring additional skill sets and human resources to support us. Our first major task was finding an appropriate external Learning Partner to support a deep dive into our participatory grantmaking work.
Looking for a Learning Partner?
Over the span of two months, the L&E WG held discussions on what we really wanted in an external Learning Partner and what their role should be. We decided that the role of a Learning Partner should be to deepen our understanding of what is unfolding through Fenomenal Funds’s participatory grantmaking streams.
Our discussion led us to develop a call for letters of interest. Fenomenal Funds staff drafted the first iteration based on the needs of the group, and the L&E WG collectively reviewed the call and provided feedback. For the L&E WG, key qualities of a Learning Partner were not just about technical skills. Members were particularly concerned about how the Learning Partner could apply feminist participatory learning approaches when working with Fenomenal Funds stakeholders, given the complex context of the feminist-funding ecosystem. Some of the essential elements we felt were important in a Learning Partner were the ability to
- apply a feminist participatory approach to co-create a learning plan in order to dig deep and explore the outcomes of FF’s participatory grantmaking streams;
- develop/adapt tools to meet FF’s learning needs and unique context;
- support the collection and sensemaking of data generated; and
- produce knowledge of value that is based on the needs of FFs stakeholders and also material that can be of use to the broader philanthropic community.
They also had to have experience working with women’s funds, while knowledge of the philanthropic ecosystem would be an asset—since this is the context in which we operate.
The L&E WG discussed our needs, and eventually our vision became clearer. This was translated into a recruitment strategy that included a call for , strategy to disseminate the call, selection criteria, decision-making protocol, and process leading to a recommendation to the Steering Committee.
Some of the key considerations based on the collective wisdom of the L&E WG while engaging in the process were as follows:
1. Clarity in how we communicated what we are looking for in a partner and reaching potential partners in the Global South
We decided that there should be an intentional attempt to reach out to those in the Global South, including individual, independent feminist consultants. We also carefully considered what it takes for individual consultants to put a proposal together and decided that the application time should be at least a month to submit a letter. This was intended so that they would understand the existence of power relations, the systems of domination and subordination, and the implications of sharing power. In this way, we could share the information out through multiple networks and personal channels and not just rely on LinkedIn. We also had a discussion to clarify our understanding of the Global South—for us, the Global South is not about geographical location as much as it is about privilege and exploitation.
2. Inclusive and non-exploitative application process
Our discussions of privilege were important. Within the group, we asked questions like, how do we remain mindful of privilege? For example, the application process should be clear and simple to facilitate equitable access—complicated processes are inhibiting and serve as a barrier for those who have not done international consulting work before. We tried to provide as much information and context as possible in the call for letters of interest to potential applicants about the initiative and our needs in the spirit of transparency and knowledge sharing. Since we work across geographies with multiple language needs, we highlighted the preference for a group who had additional language-related skills. We also highlighted that FF would provide additional interpretation and translation services support for the duration of the contract to support language justice needs.
In addition, we discussed how time is a resource, and we should provide adequate time to respond to the call. The committee members felt that large, well-resourced organizations are able to take advantage of short submission deadlines because they have dedicated teams to work on their applications. This led to the insistence for additional time to support evening out the playing field.
Being transparent with the resources available for the contract was another important discussion. On principle, we decided that the dollar amount of the contract compensation should be in the call for proposals. We also discussed pay equity and that the location of the partner should not determine the dollar amount of the contract. We considered what would be an equitable amount and compared international rates and our own resources before settling on an amount we felt was fair for the work we were requesting.
Another point brought up by one of the members was that we should not expect anyone to work for free, as this is a bad, exploitative labor practice—so the initial submission of letters of interest should not include extensive work on a proposal. Only shortlisted candidates would be invited to present a short proposal, and they would be compensated for their time through a stipend.
3. Robust participatory review and selection process
When it came to assessment and selection of the Learning Partner, we had a discussion on how we should weigh submissions. We discussed options, and a number of members shared sample assessment criteria, which were used to develop our own. Our metrics, we agreed, should be on how participatory feminist principles in methodology were showcased, the values expressed, the lived experiences, and the creativity, reflexivity, and innovation of the writers. Two of our members felt strongly that there should be room for acknowledging our own intuition in the process. To quote from our meeting notes, “We should have space to think about ‘Was there something special in this?’ So even if the candidate did not meet all our criteria, or the communication is a little awkward, or something, we can still ask, ‘Is there something really interesting and meaningful here?’”
We also talked about flexibility in the process. One L&E WG member suggested, “We should be flexible enough to pause the process as a working group when we need to think and reconsider and change our approach based on emergent learning. In this, we need to keep being mindful of unconscious bias and acknowledging our own preferences and privilege.” Asking reflexive questions was another practice we included in evaluating candidates. For example, with the review of each submission, we asked ourselves questions, such as: What are the things that attract me to a proposal? And why are they attracting me? Where is my bias coming into it as I’m looking at a letter of interest or listening to a presentation?
One WF member also brought to the discussion her feeling that “the shortlisting and selection process should be spread out and not be burdensome on the committee members, keeping in mind the need for care and well-being of the group.” This was also acknowledged and cross-checked with the group members as the process unfolded—although sometimes we did take on a heavy load.
We decided that the final selection of the candidate should not rely on a written proposal and interview but on a more interactive applied task that would allow the candidates to showcase their skill sets in online spaces and demonstrate their facilitation skills and their creativity with methods and communication.
We also, as a group, felt that support to shortlisted candidates to prepare for the task should be transparent and forthcoming. Hence, Fenomenal Funds staff offered support with two one-on-one meetings to respond to information needs, as this is in the spirit of feminist learning, sharing, and reciprocity.
What Did We Learn?
Across the six-month process, we paused four times to review our learning and make adjustments. Here are some of our insights.
- It is important to take the time to build relationships and resource learning.
Starting virtual meetings with connecting questions related to our work and the tasks we had at hand was a strategy that worked really well for us to build relationships. For example, in one meeting, I posed the following connecting question to the group to kick off our discussion on the learning agenda: if you had to formulate a learning question related to your personal relationships, what would that look like? The feedback I got was that this question really helped initiate a discussion on what a learning question is practically and then, by extension, how to apply it to the context of Fenomenal Funds. Later, as we were in the process of recruiting our Learning Partner and developing a format for assessment, I posed the following question to the group: in your experience could you share an interview question / approach regarding learning and evaluation that you find most interesting/innovative—one that really got your / the candidate’s creative juices flowing? What I heard back from group members was that this really set the tone for the discussion, and we were able to use our collective experience to come up with an assessment guide and criteria for the Learning Partner.
At Fenomenal Funds, we are privileged in not having to follow a conventional recruitment process of a Learning Partner because we have an understanding and buy-in from our governing body on what we are trying to do. This commitment to learning as a core part of the work has facilitated and provided a justification to earmark resources to support our process. It comes from the understanding that in this initiative we need to build learning into the very core of the work. Consequently, the L&E WG was able to take advantage of the flexibility offered by the Fenomenal Funds model and Steering Committee leadership to spend the time to devise an approach in line with our participatory feminist principles. In comparison, it could have been much easier for the FF staff to develop terms of reference, share it on LinkedIn, conduct interviews, and recruit within a month. The process-oriented nature of the Learning Partner by the L&E WG, we believe, is a real contribution to living our principles in practice.
Invest in a participatory structure that guides the process.
There is value in shared governance and sharing power in decision-making. Our shared decision-making model brings the perspective of women’s funds / feminist funds and our funding partners to the table. This model surfaces practical aspects of applying feminist principles and creates an ownership of the process because we are shaping the process. We are then afforded both space and time to really experiment, which is also consistent with the whole nature of FF as an experiment. The L&E WG has been really critical to bringing the Steering Committee along. It has required a time (and HR) investment from the members of this committee that, in itself, is a resource. There is a need to think about resources expansively beyond just money. We discovered the importance of pausing at different junctions in the process. To quote from our discussion notes, “What does it take to do learning in a way that allows it to be really learning rather than ‘we are just trying to prove something works’?”
Operationalize your principles and values in both what you do and how you do it.
Integrating feminist principles into learning processes is challenging, and a special effort needs to be made in thinking through how to operationalize them, even during the recruitment process. One reflection from a L&E WG member was “I think I’ve had the experience of working or being part of processes where an organization is very feminist in their work but when they come to MEL [Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning] they totally go traditional. And I think one of the things that is really a privilege that we have here is that we’ve made our work consistent with the principles and values and how we work overall at FF, from governance to systems development, to the resourcing, to engaging with people.”
Remain open and flexible to what emerges—and learn along the way.
Flexibility and pausing to reflect also allowed us to rethink the final assignment for shortlisted candidates. Instead of asking them to present a full proposal for a learning plan, we asked them to present an approach they would take to involve our stakeholder in co-creating a learning plan. We felt, on reflection, that this was more in line with our feminist participatory approach to how the learning plan should be developed. And having the flexibility to think this through and make changes to the process was important. This, we realized as we listened to the presentations, was such a meaningful pivot as it got us to reassess how we see our journey for learning evolving and who would be able to support us to meet our needs. This is an example of emergent learning where we act, reflect, and then shift our approach in line with what we have learned and what we would like to synergistically achieve.
Remain self-reflective to guard against privilege and bias.
What we saw was that setting out a slower-paced, flexible, transparent, responsive process was really valuable. It allowed us to make informed decisions and check our biases to privilege. To quote one member of the WG, “We do learn a lot in the process of operationalizing our ideas and values. I think this has been an intensive learning process for me: the participation in the working group, the design, and the implementation of the selection process.”
Another member of the WG shared: “[In] thinking about the process—the resource of time—we did step back because we said we wanted it to be very inclusive and to reach those who are in the Global South, so that we had the level of interest and the dynamism, I felt, of the people who applied. I don’t know how much and how often all of us go through these processes, but it felt more expensive than the typical recruitment process—I think that was it. Maybe that’s that resource. It’s not just that you put the letters of interest out into the world, and you’re gonna get a broader response. It took that effort that we all put in to say, ‘You know, how do we get it out there? How do we make sure that people see it?’”
To quote one of the shortlisted candidates, “We really appreciated the process set out—even if we did not get selected. The application process and designing the co-creation process was a learning [experience] for us—thank you.”
According to Nagar et al. (2016), the idea of collaboration, if taken in a formulaic way, can be compromised. What we, the L&E WG, have learned is that the experience of feminist praxis and collaboration is not easy. It requires institutional and individual commitment; continued self- and collective-reflexivity; and an extensive process of building relationships, trust, shared values, and a common vision. It is complex, and it takes time and a lot of flexibility if we really want to do justice to the principles of participatory decision-making and transparency.
Richa Nagar, who has written a great deal about feminist north/south collaborations and their complexities, reminds us of the following:
A collective commitment to address contradictory processes and their implications requires us to address in non formulaic ways our complicity with (neo)colonial, capitalist, heteropatriarchal, casteist, communal, and racialized structures, institutions, and practices. Even as we try to resist, we often inhabit—and benefit or lose from—these ambiguous and contradictory relationships. How do we then recognize our complicities with the violence inflicted by these structures and learn to address those complicities ethically and responsibly? And how do we define our ethics and responsibilities in dynamic ways when we inhabit collectives where people are placed in unequal positions and locations, and where the struggles are forever in motion? (Nagar et al., 2016, p. 505)
Drawing on a feminist emergent learning framework and making it intentionally part of the group’s DNA has been one way we have tried to address some of these aspects. Despite our best efforts to facilitate a process that was focused on a deliberate attempt to draw in expertise from the Global South, we, as a group, ended up selecting KIT Royal Tropical Institute, based in the Netherlands, as our Learning Partner. The selection process was participatory and transparent, and KIT met all the needs we had identified as a group. Perhaps some of the complicity Nagar talks about may have somehow seeped in? As we close our reflections on learning, one of the thoughts we are sitting with as the co-creation of our learning plan and its implementation unfolds is this: How do we—and can we—continue to put in this kind of effort to pause, document, and reflect on our emergent learning throughout the next two years? How do we continue to make such reflection and action intentional and transparent for Fenomenal Funds?
We hope over the next two years to continue to reflexively interrogate our experience of working with our Learning Partner to co-create and implement our learning plan. Please stay tuned for our next learning log on the co-creation of the learning plan by our Learning Partner KIT.
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