A version of this post also appeared on Philanthropy News Digest.
About a year ago, the Oceans and Fisheries team at The Rockefeller Foundation embarked on a new initiative focused on the challenges faced by small-scale fisheries worldwide and on improving the health and well-being of the people who are dependent on these threatened environments. Like any program officer worth his or her salt, the team started its decision-making and strategy-setting process with a couple of fundamental questions:
- What do we already know about work being done in this field?
- How successful has that work been?
But what Rockefeller did to answer these questions wasn’t so typical. With the encouragement of its own evaluation and learning team, along with the technical and methodological support of Foundation Center’s IssueLab service and the issue expertise of IMM Ltd., the foundation supported a synthesis review of already existing evaluative evidence that drew on findings from both the academic and “gray” literature—the literally hundreds of evaluations and case studies that had already been done on the topic—to identify and describe twenty key factors believed to influence success in small-scale coastal fisheries management. Throughout the review, the researchers regularly engaged in conversations with Rockefeller’s program team, helping to inform the team’s developing strategy with existing evidence from the field. The intensive, rapid knowledge gathering effort resulted in a formal report. After the report was completed, the team could have called it a day…but it didn’t. One of the key reasons Rockefeller decided to work with us on this project was IssueLab’s focus on capturing and sharing knowledge outcomes as a public good rather than a private organizational asset. Instead of just commissioning a literature review for use by a single organization, the foundation was interested in creating an openly licensed and public resource that anyone could use. The result is a special collection of the hard-to-find literature identified through the review, as well as an interactive visualization of the key lessons summarized in the report itself.
The visualization clearly communicates the necessity of a balanced approach to fisheries management (a key takeaway from the literature review), while also allowing users to envision how different stakeholders might engage in such a system. The collection of documents, which provides direct access to more than a hundred and fifty reports from organizations around the world, also makes use of a new feature of the IssueLab platform: the auto-extraction and graphing of keywords, which provides a quick view of what each individual report is about.
These resources can now inform the work of those working in this field, helping nonprofits and foundations learn from and build on the work of other organizations and researchers.
The approach used in this project also speaks to something that doesn’t happen enough in the social sector, or even in the larger community of program evaluation. Not only did the synthesis review build on an existing (but scattered) knowledge base, it introduced new knowledge products (i.e., the openly licensed and publicly available report, the special collection, and the visualization) into a larger ecosystem of knowledge to be reused and re-purposed by others.
This approach is what Matt Keene, in his introductory remarks for a panel discussion that included IssueLab and the Rockefeller Foundation at this year’s annual gathering of the American Evaluators Association, called the “cradle-to-cradle” approach to knowledge production and sharing. Just as natural systems, adaptive by necessity, continue to make use of every component of the system (think of what becomes of a single fallen tree in the forest), we as funders and producers of knowledge can do the same. So, rather than researching old questions anew, we can ask ourselves what we already know and build on that existing knowledge in systematic and inclusive ways. And we can share those findings through platforms like IssueLab, where they can be integrated by other organizations into their own decision-making and design processes, creating a virtuous circle of knowledge.
In the same way that our colleagues at The Rockefeller Foundation wish to support a sustainable approach to fisheries management that takes the balance of the entire system into account, we all need to approach our investments in knowledge management with the larger view of shared resources and sustainability in mind.