Learning circles: Shared knowledge through communities of practice builds nonprofit capacity

Many philanthropic organizations, including United Way of Greater Cleveland, work independently to use their own research and methodology to address community issues — including a novel idea called learning circles

These learning circles are beneficial to the nonprofit sector and have been used to advance work in other entities such as government, education and professional associations.

Learning circles, also known as communities of practice, are an opportunity to learn and are proven to increase the ability for professionals to do their jobs. The sessions are peer-directed with attendees collectively deciding each element from intended outcomes to meeting frequency.

United Way hosts learning circles for our nonprofit partners. Participants are all working toward a singular goal and invited to the table to discuss best practices and solutions for common challenges. Together, they strategize, work through unconventional ideas and broaden their point of view.

That’s why United Way partners with more than 100 local nonprofits to create a healthy community where all kids graduate and individuals and families are financially stable. United Way sees beyond investing in the agencies’ education, income and health programs.

Network of equals

An invitation to a learning circle means you share a concern, passion or experience in an area of work. The commonality can span a variety of industries and topics, ranging from family engagement in the nonprofit sector to customer relationship management in marketing.

United Way learning circle participants are subject experts who have much to contribute but also value new perspectives.

Due to the collective wisdom and diversity of knowledge, learning circles foster discovery and sharing among peers. It creates an environment detached from organizational hierarchies and enables objective exploration of projects, campaigns and service offerings in order to discover and design ways to do it better.

Affirmation and action

Learning circles are intended to strategically share resources, experiences and tools to address recurring challenges. Knowledge sharing in this setting affirms our nonprofit partners have worked diligently to solve our community’s most pressing problems. It’s also affirmation of expected successes and challenges in preparing our kids to enter kindergarten, providing individuals with job training, encouraging families to live healthy lifestyles and much more.

Participants seamlessly transition from sharing their point of view and affirmation to motivation to act. Each member is vested in the common challenge and therefore the group takes collective responsibility for integrating new tactics to address community issues. Since learning circles are not solitary brainstorming sessions, subsequent meetings include progress reporting and, in some cases, redesigning the strategy until the intended outcome is reached.

As the nonprofit sector advances our community, we know we don’t have all the answers, and we can’t do it alone. Learning circles provide the opportunity for us all to collaborate, learn and innovate faster, smarter and hopefully, more successfully.

Bill Kitson is president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland and is committed to advancing education, income and health by engaging community members to give, advocate and volunteer.