Reflective Practices: A Path to Better Outcomes
By Jan Jaffe
When you think about talented people at the Ford Foundation or elsewhere who were able to advance new ideas, scale up innovation or come to the rescue when challenging work got stuck, who have you admired? Were they the ones with terrific technical skills and knowledge?
My hunch is you’d say yes, but that is not what you admired the most. What was it that they were able to do when confronted with the myriad non-technical challenges that come with our work, and what have you done when challenged in this way?
For the last 18 months, through a project called Reflective Practices, I’ve been asking questions like these of philanthropy practitioners across the U.S. and sharing them at www.reflectivepractices.org. Most likely, you will recognize their challenges as among the hardy perennials that inevitably pop up during philanthropic work, including:
How do you create space for authentic proposals to develop?
How do you help a board do generative work around a divisive topic?
How do you make racial equity real inside a foundation or across a field?
How do you help your board and staff explore the role of financial assets at foundations?
Despite their positions, the size of their foundations, their racial identity or age, everyone I interviewed had one thing in common: In challenging situations, they try to get curious instead of frustrated. They take a step back to observe themselves and others.
They have equipped themselves so that they can safely dive “under the waterline” of difficult transactions to help everyone see the barriers hidden at a deeper level. And they have a “test and learn” mindset that allows them to make adjustments in behavior, both theirs and others’, to try new ways to get to better outcomes.
In other words, they use reflective practices at work.
I have always been as interested in “the how” of our work as “the what” of it. Early in my career at the Foundation, I enlisted Don Schon from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to advise us on how to create a learning environment that would expand thinking about philanthropic financial assets to include Program Related Investments. That led to a series of workshops at MIT that enabled foundations to explore closely held practices that didn’t align with their desire for greater impact. His research and application of reflective practices to help people shift their beliefs and approaches inspired me.
Years later I wrote a GrantCraft guide with Bill Ryan called Personal Strategy about what it takes to manage and mobilize oneself to shift approaches in challenging environments. The underlying premise was that, if organizations have strategy, shouldn’t individuals have strategy too? That question has led me to my hunch that reflective practices are key to good personal and organizational strategy.
After I left the Foundation in 2011, I joined The Giving Practice, the national consulting arm of Philanthropy Northwest, a nationwide network of some 200 family, private, community and corporate funders. Our focus is on helping practitioners in philanthropy build what they already bring to their work. We believe a lot of hidden knowledge in the experience of people and organizations can be tapped though reflective practices that illuminate strategy, grant-making approaches and the inevitable dilemmas that come with any good work.
Reflective Practices takes a deeper dive into what helps people at work face and navigate problems that don’t have technical solutions. I recently released a guide based on interviews with philanthropy practitioners across the country. You can see every interview on our website, and can download the guide.
You’ll find four common reflective practices in the guide: discovering roles, practicing presence, putting something other than exposition in the middle of a conversation and enlisting peers to consult on, rather than solve, a dilemma.
Please contact me if you’d like a hard copy and/or want to have a conversation about how to use the guide in your own work. I’m looking for teams in organizations and collaboratives (philanthropic, NGOs or NPOs, or B corporations) that embed reflective practices of any kind into their meetings, feedback loops or strategy work. The next step in this project is to interview them, share their experiences on our website and connect them to each other for learning purposes.
Reflective practices are easy to learn. They immediately change power dynamics. Because there are myriad tools and skills, they invite you on a life-long learning journey. If we believe that philanthropy is not designed to be an ATM for social change, then why not invest in all its non-financial resources, including people and organizational structure, for the greatest return?
And of course, even if you are no longer working in philanthropy, why not develop your reflective practices to get to better outcomes in whatever you are doing now?
Jan Jaffe was part of the PRI team at the Foundation starting in 1981 and the first learning director for the program division. She was a senior director and founder of GrantCraft, peer-informed guides to “the how” of philanthropy that can be found at www.grantcraft.org, and continues as a project of the Foundation Center. She is a Senior Partner at The Giving Practice and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org