In this post Renaisi’s Head of Learning, Alice Thornton, reflects on how our consultancy team has combined approaches designed to build evidence with rapid learning methods to support clients to respond to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the year 2020 has been about very little except the Covid-19 pandemic. For the social sector, it is a crisis that has at once changed everything, and nothing at all. It has of course changed a lot of things about the way we work, forcing us to find new ways to support people as the challenges they (and we) face develop in rapid and unexpected ways. But on a deeper level, it has done very little to change the fundamental challenges, injustices and inequalities that we are trying to tackle through our work – except to make many of them worse.

That has certainly been true for Renaisi and the people we support in our programmes (read employment advisors Marwah and Darryl’s blog about that), as well as being the experience of the many charities, funders and government departments we support through our consultancy work.

Why take a learning approach now?

This year has seen one shift in the social sector which might yet turn into a longer-term, more fundamental change. In March 2020, our neatly structured approaches to strategy, evaluation, planning and thinking about what we do when we try to make social change happen, went out the window.

Since then, a subtle shift in how we understand, strategise, and evaluate our work has persisted – a shift from an understanding of problems and solutions that is predominantly based on linearity, predictability and programmatic approaches, to a newfound appreciation of the tacit, often intangible, knowledge and wisdom grounded in the complexity of our everyday experiences.

Renaisi’s work with Power to Change is an example of this shift. We have been the evaluator of Power to Change’s Community Business Fund, Trade Up, and Bright Ideas programmes since 2019. At the beginning of lockdown in March 2020, our team worked alongside colleagues at Power to Change to very explicitly shift our approach from a focus on evaluating impact, to one of rapid learning. The primary aim of this shift was to help Power to Change and its partners learn from and respond to the COVID-19 crisis together. It involved running monthly workshops with staff and partners to share experiences and learn together, combining the knowledge they gained from delivering the programme in this period with evaluative data and insights gathered by our researchers.

You can read more about how we changed our approach in Annabel Litchfield’s blog for Power to Change

Next year

Knowledge grounded in research, evidence and data has typically held more weight in our sector, but this year has reminded us there is also room for knowledge grounded in learning and experience to help us understand and shape social change.

I think the two approaches can complement each other and there is a real value to drawing on both to help further knowledge and understanding in our sector. It is something we at Renaisi are going to continue to reflect on, using lessons learnt this year to build effective approaches into our work with clients.

I am sure we are far from alone in this. Embedding learning approaches and making them meaningful is a shared challenge for our sector, and if it’s one you’ve been thinking about too, then do get in touch. I would love to work on it together.