When it’s Time to Learn Fast: How our Learning Processes Changed to Meet the Moment in the Summer of 2020

May 18, 2021

We tried something different. As a foundation, we are only as effective as our understanding of and alignment to what is occurring in the fields we fund. That’s tough to do in a complex environment. During a crisis, it’s even tougher. Try several crises.

In the summer of 2020, the grantees of our Digital Democracy Initiative (DDI) were revving up to combat a trifecta of mis- and disinformation about COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 2020 election. And we wanted to know how we could support them — not with slow, drawn-out information-gathering and analysis, but with something more agile. 

We had to rethink the way we learn. 

We didn’t have the luxury to wait for researchers to conduct a study and package it up for us to leisurely read nine months later. Nor did we want to ask our grantees to spare time that could be better used to do the work. So, we decided to approach our research and evaluation a little differently. We made a decision to minimize our plans for a developmental evaluation into a set of learning conversations that prioritized strengthening and facilitating information flows among our grantees over answering our own set of learning questions. 

We also made a conscious decision to do something researchers would not advise (because of possible observer effects): we broke the fourth wall of objectivity. Our Associate Director of DDI and our Strategy and Learning Manager joined in on the focus groups facilitated by our evaluator. This had positive implications on our construction of knowledge. We were able to hear and respond to concerns in real time as our grantees were experiencing it and extract key points outside of those captured by our evaluators. Grantees were also able to learn from each other in real time and see other parts of the wider field they contribute to. While the resulting report, Responding to the Moment, synthesized much of this information, it was invaluable to have immediate access to it. 

Our grantees expressed gratitude for the time to connect, particularly during the pandemic lockdown because some felt increasingly siloed. Hunkered down within the circles they were already in pre-pandemic, some felt it a challenge to do what the moment demanded: connect with new folks in order to advance the work. 

We learned that one of the largest gaps in the mis- and disinformation network space existed between researchers and activists. While field-building and connecting across network gaps is a critical tactic for the Digital Democracy Initiative, this was an urgent learning for us. Leaning into making connections across fields of work is vital to successfully attacking the complex problem of mis- and disinformation. We have begun this through follow-up meetings and we are already seeing our grantees make these connections more explicitly in their work.

In our real-time learning, we made sure to center the experiences of people of color and women, with special attention to women of color who fall within both groups and experience unique circumstances because of this intersectionality. One important learning that resulted from this centering was the consequences and inequity of uniformed dollars in the philanthropic field due to “parachuting” and “trendiness.” As money was pouring into the mis- and disinformation space, dollars were going to new actors parachuting into the space for those resources as opposed to going to long-term actors who already worked on these issues. Additionally, a surface understanding of the challenges in the field made it likely that grantmakers would give their well-intentioned dollars to solutions that were trending, but not necessarily effective instead of buttressing effective efforts that activists and researchers were already cultivating. We have worked to elevate the voices and work of those who have been working in this space over time, and ensure funders understand the importance of that work as an anchor in this field.

These learnings underscore the inequitable ways that philanthropic support rarely goes into the hands of those most impacted by the problem and therefore best suited to address the problems. Centering the perspectives and experiences of those most negatively impacted by disinformation, people of color and women, allowed us to best understand our points of leverage for field solutions that are either out of the focus of or deprioritized by a broader philanthropic sector that is overwhelmingly wealthy and white.

The summer of 2020, like other crisis moments, was filled with chaos, trauma, and uncertainty. We were surprised by the learning that can happen even in the midst of crises when we strip away the formalities and reduce the amount of time and attention being taken away from important work being done in the field. Many of those crises continue today, and the changes we made to our learning will extend past the summer of 2020. We are thankful to our grantees for their time and honesty. The lessons we learned come from them. 


Thank you to the experts in the misinformation and disinformation space that we relied on to learn fast. You can access a list of their names and their critical work on page 13 of the report.