Improving Philanthropic Practice by Prioritizing Reflection & Learning

The Andrus Family Fund and Surdna board and staff carve out time for shared learning on a site visit to grantee partner Lead By Example Reverse The Trend (

Family philanthropy done well can achieve lasting and meaningful change in the world and within the families themselves. To be effective, NCFP believes funders must employ four principles: accountability, equity, relationships, and reflection and learning. Despite being essential to impactful funding, a commitment to reflection and learning is often the first practice to be left behind when the day-to-day is busy, and community needs are pressing. And yet, it’s through listening, curious inquiry, and a willingness to change when presented with new information, that position organizations to grow, understand their particular place in the philanthropic ecosystem, and share power with those who have greater knowledge and lived experience. 

By building reflection and learning practices into their way of being, funders can ensure that they are taking the time to understand the needs of their community, the impact they are having, and how they need to adjust to be more effective. 

To explore how funders can build a culture that prioritizes learning and humility across their governance, grantmaking, and operations in pursuit of advancing impact, we spoke to Don Chen, president and CEO of the Surdna Foundation, where he has developed structures, processes, and relationships that foster ongoing learning and adapting.  

How do you think about reflection and learning in the context of family philanthropy? 

When family foundations reflect on their efforts and share honest assessments about what they’ve learned, it’s often driven by a commitment to transparency, a desire to share lessons, and a healthy dose of humility. At Surdna, these values have motivated us to engage in reflection and learning, and we’re continually pushing ourselves to be clear about why we should invest time and money into these efforts.  

Our main goal is to contribute knowledge to the field. For foundations tackling big, complex challenges that require changes in policies, practices, and narratives (what we often refer to as “systems change”), it’s critical that we progress from hunches and hypotheses to theories, and eventually to evidence-based strategies and practices. Doing that requires us to understand the outcomes of our grantmaking and draw lessons that can help inform the effective pursuit of social change.  

Another goal is good governance. It’s critical for board members and staff members to be on the same page in terms of understanding an organization’s mission and how we’re working together to achieve it. Shared learning is an essential tool for achieving that, and especially important for family philanthropy because family members often aren’t social change professionals like foundation staff typically are. Plus, it’s good practice to develop strong working relationships so that we can move forward together. 

How does Surdna’s governance structure support a culture of reflection and learning? What about the Andrus Family Fund? 

Starting in 2024, we are changing Surdna’s governance structure to better support the foundation’s efforts to deepen our learning about social impact and anti-racism. We’ve had the same structure in place since the 1990s, in which board members oversee grantmaking by reviewing and approving hundreds of grants every year, mainly through three board program committees. Under this structure, board members generally learn a lot about Surdna’s grantmaking. But because our program committees oversee separate programs, they inadvertently reinforce silos that discourage cross-programmatic collaboration. What’s more, reviewing each grant one by one is very time consuming, doesn’t allow for much time to discuss clusters of grants as parts of broader strategies, and results in less time to explore productive partnerships between grantmaking areas.  

The board began thinking about alternatives to its longstanding governance structure after two internal self-assessments that urged a shift of board members’ attention from grant approvals to deeper learning rooted in outcomes and social impact. Acting on these recommendations, the board voted to phase out program committees and to launch an ambitious new learning and impact agenda in 2024. It means that the board will cede most of its oversight over individual grant approvals, shift those responsibilities to the president, and delve much more deeply into higher-level issues related to grantmaking strategy, learning about the foundation’s impact, and understanding how external forces are affecting the work that our grantees have initiated.  

The Andrus Family Fund (AFF), which is part of Surdna, has also been on a learning journey since its inception in 2000. But its path has been different because it was conceived specifically as a “learning board” to provide next-generation Andrus family members with opportunities to learn about social justice philanthropy and public service. In some ways, the AFF Board has spent more time learning about what the Surdna Board plans to focus on: high-level grantmaking strategy, relevant public policy issues, and how current ideas in the philanthropy sector should be considered and incorporated into the foundation. AFF has spent relatively less time on the formal aspects of board service, such as issues related to governance and fiduciary responsibility, assessing various types of risk, and finances and investing. In the future, we’re hopeful that the learning agendas of our staff members and both boards will overlap and coalesce, so we can all learn and act together.  

How does the foundation foster learning between board and staff? 

As part of our deeper learning about social justice and anti-racism, our staff members and board are shifting toward a more integrated approach in which we are learning together, across different roles within the foundation and across different program areas. Our issues are interrelated, and as the proverb goes, if we want to go far, we must go together.

In September, for example, our Thriving Cultures program (TC) invited three grantee partners to discuss how their work in narratives, media, and pop culture helps advance racial justice goals in the United States. The positive energy in the room was palpable—board members and staff were elated to have the chance to learn together with grantee partners that they rarely interact with. Though TC funds these grantee partners, we all immediately saw connections to our other efforts supporting climate and environmental justice, economic inclusion, youth organizing, and strategic communications. A major takeaway from this cross-programmatic discussion is that dominant cultural narratives must be challenged in every sector to make progress on systems change.

We have also sought to engage our board members, staff members, and the broader Andrus family network in learning about social justice and anti-racism. When the board decided to place racial justice at the center of Surdna’s mission in 2018, we all knew that we still had a lot of learning to do. The majority of our staff members are people of color who have spent most of their careers working on social change issues. But the roughly 500 members of the Andrus family have varying levels of knowledge and understanding of racial justice and social change strategies. Therefore, we have prioritized meeting people where they are, including some family-only sessions that don’t include staff members, because we realized that it could be deleterious and even potentially harmful to place staff members in the middle of debates among family members who are not on the board.

How does the foundation acknowledge and learn from mistakes? Do you have an example of mistakes you’ve made and learned from? 

Former Surdna and NCFP Board member Kelly Nowlin has proudly called Surdna a “great mistake-maker” because we see mistakes as opportunities to learn, share lessons, and adapt. For example, in our most recent Grantee Perception Report, we asked our grantees for honest feedback and received a wealth of suggestions about how we can improve in the future. Respondents asked for more “consistent, clear, and frequent communications,” and more opportunities to provide input about how we assess our progress. Hearing this inspired us to launch a “clarity committee” to update how we talk about our work, and to share more about our approach to learning, such as our Inclusive Economies Program’s pilot program to co-create metrics tracking progress toward collective goals.  

Learn more about how reflection and learning is an essential principle of effective family philanthropy here and in the video below.