From the Professional Team

Asking Questions As a Powerful Way to Learn

– by Stacie Cherner

April 29th, 2019

Whether in the realm of business, journalism, relationships, or of course in our non-profit and social sector, the act of “questioning” can be powerful. A piece in the Harvard Business Review last year noted,  “Questioning is a uniquely powerful tool for unlocking value in organizations: It spurs learning and the exchange of ideas, it fuels innovation and performance improvement, it builds rapport and trust among team members. And it can mitigate business risk by uncovering unforeseen pitfalls and hazards.”

In other words, to “question” makes sense. This is why the Jim Joseph Foundation, for over a decade, has invested in the process of defining and pursuing questions. We have seen this process lead to important learning opportunities. But, who exactly are these learning opportunities for (that is a good question!)?  In the past, we emphasized the critical nature of supporting the capacity of grantees to answer questions they create – “what will we achieve and how will we do that?” “did we see the changes we wanted to see?”  “how could we be more successful in the future?”

Now, however, we are beginning to ask what questions the Foundation should be creating for ourselves. Many of them are questions similar to those found in evaluations of grantee-partner programs, but adapted to a larger, cross-portfolio level.

Blending Past and Future Priorities

Recently, in a facilitated team exercise, members of the Foundation’s program team were asked to examine the assumptions we make in our work and then to consider how we might test those assumptions.  The exercise was valuable in that it opened us up to realizing there are many assumptions we all make, and even that there are assumptions only some of us make. These include, but aren’t limited to, assumptions about elements of immersive and ongoing learning experiences, issues of depth and breadth in programming, and the value of risk taking.  Which of these would we want to actually test to see if our assumptions about grantmaking, Jewish education, and young Jews bear out?  Which questions could we seek answers to that would lead to meaningful learning that would inform future grantmaking endeavors?

Certainly, moving forward, the Foundation will continue to ask many of the same questions our grantee-partners know well:

  • Did a grantee-partner do what they said they would do?
  • Were desired outcomes achieved? Why or why not?
  • What could be changed or improved in a grantee-partner’s programming or organization to reach better results in the future?

Beyond this, in the near future we will begin to shift and prioritize other kinds of questions as well:

  • To what extent do cohorts or sets of grants help the Foundation achieve our goals?
  • Overall, do our investments across grantee-partners lead us to our outcomes? Why or why not?
  • What could be changed or improved in our grantmaking to get better results in the future?
  • What even are the best measures for our desired outcomes?

We’ve chosen a consulting firm, Arabella Advisors, to help us develop a framework of Foundation-wide outcomes measurement.  In short, over the upcoming nine months, they will design a structure for us to systematically learn from our grantmaking in order to 1) understand progress toward outcomes and 2) inform future grantmaking decisions. Specifically, they will work with us to:

  • Develop learning questions, indicators, and measures within and across our strategic priorities,
  • Create and pilot a process for collecting and analyzing data from grantees,
  • Build a system that communicates the results of our grantmaking, and
  • Map out a 3- to 5-year research agenda focused on our investments in Jewish learning that will benefit the larger field.

With newly finalized strategic priorities, defining the correct learning questions to ask and answer is an important next step.  Measurement, evaluation and research remain as consistent threads through our work.  All of this planning, questioning and assumption testing will lead to a better understanding of our aspiration to “best support more young Jews – with their families and friends – to find connection, meaning, and purpose through Jewish learning.” We look forward to formulating our questions and documenting our learning—and to keeping the field informed of our work along the way.

Stacie Cherner is Director of Learning and Evaluation at the Jim Joseph Foundation