What is a Learning Organization?
Modern nonprofits face unrelenting pressures to remain competitive with their federal agencies. One way to address these pressures is to create a special type of nonprofit grant proposal team – a learning organization that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.
I was reminded of the importance of facilitating learning in a grant proposal debriefing. I had just finished serving as the Proposal Manager on a bid to NASA. We were proposing to manage an ongoing graduate fellowship program in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to help prepare NASA’s future workforce and contribute to the nation’s need for scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
Although I have worked in proposal development for over two decades, during the debriefing I was pleasantly surprised to pick up several constructive suggestions about what I could have done better to manage this proposal effort. It was a forceful example to me of how proposal teams can function as learning organizations.
Without this debriefing, we probably would have made the same mistakes again. But, with this debriefing, we were able to identify and acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them, all in a meeting of less than two hours.
How to Develop a Grants Learning Organization
There is a voluminous literature on how to develop learning organizations, but a good start comes from a citation in our proposal. In the first section, we discussed a book that has been attracting attention at NASA, Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It (2008). Although this is a study of America’s K-12 education system, Wagner’s advice can be used to help grant proposal teams become learning organizations.
According to Wagner, our nation’s schools do not teach students how to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers. To prepare young people for productive adulthoods and civic engagement, Wagner recommends that schools concentrate on instilling seven survival skills for the 21st century:
• Critical thinking and problem-solving.
• Curiosity and imagination.
• Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.
• Agility and adaptability.
• Initiative and entrepreneurialism.
• Effective oral and written communication.
• Accessing and analyzing information.
I doubt whether the skills needed on effective grant proposal teams are different. To remain competitive as grant proposal professionals, we will need to identify, recruit, and nurture the kinds of people who have these seven important skills. If proposal professionals cannot ask good questions, think critically, communicate effectively, or solve problems, then our grant proposals are not likely to remain competitive in the face of fierce competition for federal grants.
There are many ways to promote learning organizations in the nonprofit world. For grant proposal professionals, a good first step would be to read Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap. It is a stirring guide to what we should want for our children – and expect from our colleagues.
Find ways to learn from your grant development efforts and you will submit more competitive proposals. It is that easy, and that difficult.
Dr. Jayme Sokolow, founder and president of The Development Source, Inc.,
helps nonprofit organizations develop successful proposals to government agencies. Contact Jayme Sokolow.
Look for Jayme’s ebook on Finding & Getting Federal Government Grants. It’s part of The Fundraising Series of ebooks
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