What is a learning partnership and what should you expect to gain?
In 2018, London’s largest independent funder City Bridge Trust, engaged Renaisi as a learning partner to support their work by developing an organisational culture of learning. Ruth Feder, the Trust’s Head of Impact & Learning (a job share with Donna Buxton), discusses the partnership with Renaisi’s former Head of Learning, Alice Thornton.
What is a learning partnership?
Alice: a learning partnership is a relationship-based approach to help a client, such as City Bridge Trust, achieve learning ambitions. It’s often long-term, and generally involves developing the organisation’s learning culture, but each project can be quite unique.
Ruth: It’s right to call it a partnership or even a “critical friendship”. We’ve encouraged Renaisi to have the confidence to be able to challenge us in a helpful way and that’s what they’ve done.
Why did City Bridge Trust commission a learning partner?
Ruth: In 2018 the Trust launched a five-year funding strategy called Bridging Divides, and at the heart of this strategy was the desire to continually learn and improve. We understood at the time that Brexit and other socio-political issues were likely to create significant change for many Londoners over the next five years.
We didn’t realise quite how much change Covid would bring, but we knew our strategy needed to be flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of those people and communities in London that need our support. We engaged Renaisi because we needed a learning partner to help us continually reflect and learn, a partner who would support us as we adjusted the strategy, so it remained relevant to the changing issues faced by Londoners.
What did you expect from the partnership?
Ruth: We wanted the partnership to help us make regular time and space to step back, allowing us to reflect on how we were working, and make adjustments if we needed to.
What were the challenges?
Alice: It was a core ambition of City Bridge Trust’s strategy to become more of a learning organisation, but it can take a while for the fruits of that learning to show.
Ruth: To start with, the Trust lacked the dedicated Impact and Learning role which we have now, and there were many other urgent issues impacting on the team’s time. The Trust appointed its first Heads of Impact and Learning in 2019, which meant we could focus on developing the relationship and since then it has gone from strength to strength.
How is Renaisi helping City Bridge Trust become more of a learning organisation?
Ruth: Renaisi helps us to track our progress towards our strategic goals. Together, we’ve got into a rhythm of six-monthly reviews, during which Renaisi surveys and interviews members of our staff team about their working experience over the previous six months. This has really helped, because it has kept the Impact and Learning team accountable to the wider team. Renaisi has been fantastic at putting together questions that help track the extent to which the team thinks the Trust’s learning ethos is developing, what we have done well, and how we could do things better.
Covid created significant new challenges but our relationship with Renaisi remained supportive from the tumultuous beginning of lockdown and throughout the pandemic. They helped us work out what the team needed and how we could maintain our commitment to our values and to having a learning ethos.
During the first lockdown Renaisi interviewed staff and highlighted a deepening issue, which many of our line managers were already noticing and supporting. With the increased workload during Covid, together with personal pressures, some members of staff were beginning to feel like they might burnout. As a result, the Leadership Team made it clear they were prioritising the team’s recovery as well as London’s recovery.
Alice: Because we’re working in such close partnership with the Trust, we can be quite agile and responsive to changes in the Trust’s needs. This really helped during the upheaval of the pandemic.
What have you learnt in the last 18 months?
Ruth: How important it is to record processes and recommendations so that learning is taken forward, even with staff changes. And how well we can learn together as colleagues, even when we have to do this remotely.
Also there does need to be at least one person, or ideally a team, continually ensuring that learning is an internal priority. Having an Impact and Learning team has transformed what we have been able to achieve at City Bridge Trust.
Alice: It is about having the humility to know that we don’t know it all. We are continually learning from the people we support, from our colleagues, and experiences. Making sure that we give time and space to experienced and knowledgeable colleagues, to be able to reflect and share their expertise, is at the heart of developing a learning culture.
Ruth: I think the partnership has been really helpful in creating flows of information in all directions and helping all colleagues feel they can speak up, regardless of their role, their seniority or the length of time they have been at the Trust. So, for example, when the Trust has a team session or discussion now, it’s a very open and easy forum for people to contribute to, no matter what role they’re in. That development is definitely appreciated.
Final thought from you, Ruth?
Ruth: Renaisi has been a huge support in my role. We’ve now got an Impact and Learning Team of three full-time equivalent people, but with Renaisi involved it feels like it’s a much bigger team. We couldn’t have achieved what we have over the past three years without them.
About City Bridge Trust
City Bridge Trust is the funding arm of the charity Bridge House Estates. Our aim is for London to be a city where all individuals and communities can thrive, especially those experiencing disadvantage and marginalisation. Providing grants totalling around £25m per year, we work in partnerships with our funded organisations to reduce inequality and grow stronger, more resilient and thriving communities for a London that serves everyone.