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How To Get A Fantastic Lessons Learned Report

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: How to Get a Fantastic Lessons Learned Report

As foundations and nonprofits strive to be open and communicate what they are learning, many are sharing those lessons with others.

It’s a great idea. It just often falls short.

Here’s why: The lessons learned are often bromides, or, as one of my colleagues said once, fortune cookies. These summary statements are often so bland or indecipherable that they are useless.  A common one  is “communicate, communicate, communicate.” How can anyone possibly read that and take away any useful advice? It begs for more detail. What kind of communication should someone do? In what form? Who should do the communicating?

But it’s important not to give up on sharing what your organization has learned. A lessons learned report is a great way for everyone to broaden their knowledge in any given field. These reports can help your colleagues learn what worked and what didn’t so that they can make better and more informed decisions.

You can get a fantastic lessons learned report by doing these three things:

1. Determine Your Audience

As with just about anything you do, think about the audience first. You may feel that you want to reach multiple audiences, but your report is most useful if you have one key audience in mind.

If you are trying to reach high-level policy makers, they usually need only one type of lessons learned piece - and it’s about the big picture.

If you want to share useful information with program officers who are creating a new program, then they need more specific lessons, typically around grantmaking.

And people who are actually implementing a program need nuts and bolts advice.  

We recently completed a case study on a large funders collaborative that came together to strengthen higher education in Africa (The Partnership for Higher Education in Africa). Our client was clear on the audience: program officers at other foundations and grantmaking institutions who might benefit from the lessons learned from their 10-year, nearly $500 million funder collaborative—one of the largest funder collaboratives ever established.

With the audience in mind, we wrote a case study that included specific advice for program officers that focused on working in a funders collaborative. You can find the case study here.


2. Provide Enough Information so that the Lessons Learned Are Useful

As we mentioned earlier, lessons learned reports can be so generic that they don’t provide any useful information. 

The recent response by international governments and nonprofit organizations to the earthquake in Haiti likely provides many useful lessons for organizations to take forward as they prepare for future natural disasters.

Yet this lessons learned report about the response includes just the kind of vague, unhelpful statements that are all too common.  Here’s one example: “Initial actions are crucial – they either support longer-term development or undermine it.”

What lesson can anyone really draw from that statement to do a better job? What specific kind of initial actions should an organization take? How, exactly, do actions support or undermine longer-term development?

Each lesson should also provide a context, so that people will grasp why these lessons learned are important and an example so that the lesson makes sense.

3. Include What Doesn’t Go Well (and Even Failures)

Don’t shy away from talking about the things that didn’t work well. Those mistakes are often the most valuable lessons you can share.

The Case Foundation provides a great example of how to produce useful reports. In 2007, the foundation launched a well-publicized “citizen-centered” grantmaking project that encouraged people to get involved in choosing its grantees. Using Web tools, citizens could be involved at several steps in the grantmaking process.

The experiment culminated in an on-line voting competition for 20 finalists that would receive a grant from Case.  Potential grantees also received a fundraising “widget” (an online fundraising tool) and other tools to help them raise funding outside of the competition.

This “open” grantmaking was relatively new at the time and sparked the interest of many foundations and nonprofits.

Case commissioned a report on the project to capture the lessons learned for its organization and the field of philanthropy, particularly other grantmakers.

Among the more interesting findings was that the centerpiece of this project--the public voting--turned out to be the least popular part of the process for the potential grantees. Many applicants felt it was unfair and too time-consuming. That finding is particularly important because online voting is becoming a popular way to engage individuals in the grantmaking process, wrote Jean Case, co-founder of the Case Foundation, in a blog post announcing the findings.

In addition, the fundraising widgets and other online tools that the Case Foundation provided did not produce the expected reaction from grantees.

In her blog post, Case continued, “In addition, grantees reported that they didn’t feel they could decline optional resources provided to them – including new technologies – because they did not want to disappoint us as funders.”

Case and her foundation did not shy away from talking openly about one of the key issues that foundations grapple with--the unequal power dynamic between grantees and funders. In its willingness to share its mistakes, the foundation provided valuable lessons to others seeking to explore “open” grantmaking.

The nonprofit group, Engineers Without Borders, Canada, is even braver.  The group, which works in rural Africa to address causes of poverty, publishes “failure” reports about what they did wrong. Their language in these reports, as you might guess, is refreshingly down-to-earth. One recent failure report has sections entitled “Learning from Our Mistakes” and “What Went Wrong and What [We] Did About It.”

Those kinds of honest, straightforward findings can help move a field forward. And undoubtably earns the respect of other foundations.

By clearly defining your audience, writing substantive lessons and being willing to share your mistakes, you can help ensure that the learning from multi-million programs can continue to influence your field long after those programs may end.

We specialize in writing clear, practical lessons learned reports. Please contact us if you’d like to explore how such a report can help your organization capture and share its key learnings. You can reach us at or (802) 748-3070.


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