Reflection note: Learning exchanges
A. Purpose of this reflection note
The purpose of this reflection note is to inspire future learning processes related to the learning exchange methodology. This note is one in a series produced by the Making the Most of What we Know Project (MMWWK). It aims to share reflections on the use of national and international learning exchanges emerging from the SPARK learning exchange fund. This note utilises insights and reflections generated by the learning SPARK team at Simavi as they designed and implemented the fund and self-corrected along the way. Its aims to analyse and synthesise insights and reflections from running a learning exchange grant fund in nine countries in 2020 on the links between adolescent sexuality and child marriage. This reflection note highlights why the learning exchange method should be used (and why it shouldn’t) to appreciate its contributions and limitations and how to use this method to understand what an organisation can start to do, do differently, or stop doing. The reflections shared in this note are linked to some ‘tips’ on good practices.
B. Definition of a learning exchange
At the Spark Learning Fund, with our focus on community knowledge on the links between adolescent sexuality and child marriage, we see learning exchanges as spaces for professionals from different organisations and people from different places to share and listen to the community viewpoint and varied perspectives on this topic. Our exchanges were designed to draw out local knowledge, insights, and responses. The learning exchange approach uses participatory methods that allow participants to dive into the issues and questions that excite them around a central learning question. First, they share their knowledge, strategies, and experiences and then reflect together on the implications of community knowledge and experiences for improving the design, implementation, and advocacy of child marriage programmes. We awarded 18 learning exchange grants across nine countries in Africa and Asia. The grant size was small, ranging from Euro 3,000 to Euro 11,000.
C. Key considerations
There are many considerations to take into account before embarking upon a learning exchange. Below are the ones the Spark Fund prioritises.
Reasons to use the learning exchange methodology and as well reasons not to use it
The learning exchange method should be used to surface perspectives often overlooked or undervalued on a particular topic, creating a knowledge gap. In our case, this was what community members know about the links between sexuality and child marriage. Typically they are seen as the ‘beneficiaries’ of programming efforts that transfer knowledge and educate people on the harm of child marriage and related social norms, rather than the holders of knowledge and agency. Use a knowledge exchange when you want to find out something new and uncover what could be missing.
A reason not to use a learning exchange methodology is when the organisation’s preference is “doing and delivering” rather than “listening, hearing and learning.” There are very different objectives and need different skills. The organisation has to be motivated to use a new or less familiar way of working. Be cautious in using this methodology if the organisation is not ready to “stretch.”
What to do if you want to support learning exchanges: what should you start to do, change doing or stop doing
Start to do
- Clarify what a learning exchange is and how it works. For example, the Spark Fund illustrated this to participants with a definition and links to examples and relevant tool kits describing learning methods. The fund posted tutorials online, illustrated steps and processes with video clips, and held ‘live’ orientation sessions online in different time zones and languages.
- Rings fence the learning exchange topic by making a clear statement on what you want to learn. Decide on the different types of grants to offer – how large or small and the eligible organisations and countries. Think it through well and write it up into a guidance note. Clarify everything: the whole application processes, selection criteria and deadlines. Be clear, transparent and accessible. The Spark Fund decided on three grant windows, with different criteria and sizes of funds to attract and be suitable to different types of organisations and possibilities, including sub-national, national, and multi-national learning exchanges. The fund posted this on an online platform called “Slack” so that all the basic information, procedures, and instructions were in one place and widely accessible.
- Establish how learning exchange grants will be governed and administrated fairly and transparently so organisations can trust them. Set up committees, establish assessment criteria and put processes in place for selecting which learning exchanges to support. The Spark Fund choose to use a participatory grantmaking approach with experts on child marriage and adolescent girls in each participating country scoring the applications.
- Make organisations aware of your fund by advertising it. The Spark fund used its child marriage networks in the nine participating countries to develop a list of eligible organisations. It then used a project coordinator in each country to send out a notification and invitation to organisations to find out more through joining online orientation sessions and applying through an online platform.
- Modify how you work with grant partners. Work bilaterally with them – for personal and hands-on coaching and support around their unique learning exchange, context and capacities. Move away from a one size fits all cookie-cutter approach to customised ways of working. While we wanted to work with grant holders in teams for peer learning, we found this difficult. Different levels of readiness, timelines, time zones, and language this approach unworkable.
- Don’t expect things to go to plan. Be adaptive, troubleshoot, and iterate as you go. Be accessible and inclusive in the context of COVID-19 restrictions, connectivity challenges and conflict situations. We found that working in a team and doing real-time, rapid troubleshooting and sometimes breaking the rules by making an exception and taking a risk was necessary and effective to be inclusive and meet organisations where they were.
- Replace complicated financial reporting requirements with simple and pared-back budgets and financial requirements aligned to small learning exchange grants. The Spark Fund worked with Simavi’s finance and grant department to develop a light-touch approach regarding approval processes and financial and activity reporting, which met minimum accountability standards but allowed time and resources to be devoted to the learning process itself. Our top tip is to make sure that the head of finance and grants is on your side!
- Replace more conventional reporting templates used for research or programme implementation with one customised specifically to capture learning processes. The ultimate aim of a learning exchange is to bring together what different actors know to create new knowledge. The outcome should be new knowledge: A + B = D. The Spark Fund provided a template that asked grant holders to document their specific learning question, detail who participated in the exchange and why they were chosen, explain the tools and techniques used to distil knowledge, then collectively ‘make meaning’ from what was heard, and finally document a progression, what they knew when they started, what they found out by listening to community members and the new knowledge that the group generated. They then shared the implication of this new knowledge for their own child marriage programming.
D. Key reflections and tips
The Spark Fund team had many reflections about the process of running a learning exchange fund for NGOs in the child marriage sector, in a multi-national context, and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The latter meant that some exchanges could be face-to-face while others were online. It meant that times lines and costs shifted to adapt to what was possible given mobility restrictions and social distancing. Below are some key reflections made by the Spark Fund team about designing and implementing a learning exchange. Reflections and insight on carrying out the learning exchange process and use of the results of the learning exchange for improving an organisation’s practice are provided elsewhere by the participating grant holders [ MWWK to provide the link to the end evaluation]
Some key reflections:
From learning proposal to learning exchange
Our biggest reflection and tip for others is to be prepared to backstop the grant holder. Build a generous level of effort and the timeline to do this into your planning. Our experience demonstrated right from the orientation and application phase that ‘learning’ was new for many NGO’s. They were more geared to ‘doing’ – that is, implementing child marriage programmes. When dealing with communities, they were used to providing or downloading information on the harm of child marriage through education campaigns rather than listening to community knowledge and viewpoints as agents of change. For many organisations, what a learning exchanged asked them to do was new. Give them the time and resources to adjust. Our tip is to follow up with the grant holder after signing the contract and as they begin to design the exchange. This proved critical to clarifying the learning focus, identifying the participants to involvea and learning methods to use. The learning exchange proposal typically had to be refined and operationalised into a workable learning question and learning exchange methodology. For instance, this can be done through a one-hour bilateral call with the learning exchange grant holder to talk through and sharpen the proposal. Informing and coaching grant holders on what a learning exchange is was important to encourage grant holders to harvest participant knowledge and insights on the topic being discussed, rather than doing what is more familiar to many – conducting research and or imparting information. Since the learning exchange methodology is new to many implementing organisations, advising on learning methods, rather than assuming they are familiar with learning techniques, was critical. We had a methods specialist on the team. The time was taken to coach and advise on methods case by case and source and post links to relevant toolkits and resources. Providing support in the design phase with the grant holder is important for achieving focused learning results, as was allowing in the budget a line for hiring external expertise in participatory methods and learning. The time invested here by the fund slowed us down but was necessary and well spent.
Participatory grantmaking as a governance mechanism
Another tip is that learning exchange applications lend themselves well to a participatory grantmaking mechanism. At the Spark Fund, we identified one local child marriage expert and a girl leader in each participating country to make up the grant assessment team and decide which learning ideas should be funded. This process was conducted by a simple assessment/scoring form, a written application, and a short three-minute video application explaining the proposed learning exchange. We used our networks to identify assessors. However, next time, we would try being more participatory when forming the committee and ask people from the Child Marriage alliances and community groups to nominate the jurors. While our approach did result in getting appropriate people on the committee, the process of identification and selection could be improved by opening it up for more input. Additionally, while the role of committee members was adequate, it was largely instrumental, restricted to making decisions on what to fund. In the future, we would build on this success and be more ambitious, taking the time for a more consultative and co-creation approach with their involvement in the concept and design of the whole learning exchange and grant process.