What does Action Learning have to do with DEI?

September 10, 2019

by Aparna Rae and Jessica Walker Beaumont, Partners – Moving Beyond

Diversity, inclusion, belonging, and at times equity, have been hot topics across both the private and social sectors. Alongside the rise of DEI as a field, we’ve seen a growing number of public scandals at big names in the private sector such as Uber, Microsoft, and in philanthropy.

Despite the surge in conversation and budgets being allocated to training, unrepresented groups continue to feel marginalized, and bias at work undermines the ability of people of color to rise into leadership roles. In the private sector, a continued lack of representation and an enabling environment for diverse individuals poses a unique threat to innovation, growth, and loss in revenue. 

However, in the social and philanthropic sectors that serve to advance the common good and fill important gaps in resources, the risk to impact is immense. Despite enduring beliefs about diversity in our sector, just 8.4 percent of foundation CEOs or presidents are diverse leaders, and a mere 6.9 percent of grants go to diverse communities. This lack of diversity challenges the ability of our sector to create positive change. (We define impact broadly, as the amount of change, as the result of an investment or intervention. We recognize that impact can be either positive or negative, and aim to create conditions where impact is lasting and sustainable for people, communities and the planet). 

Moving towards positive impact however, requires an iterative and agile approach to work with a DEI lens towards action. It requires thinking flexibly and critically in service to impact, scalability, and continued innovation. This is where an action learning framework is useful. 

Action learning is an approach to planning and problem solving. It involves a small group working on real issues, taking action, and reflecting upon the results as a team, and as an organization. This helps improve the problem-solving process as participants work and learn to tackle real time issues. 

With decades of experience in this sector, we have an appreciation for the fact that there is no clear predictable path toward advancing DEI in an organizational context. We may have a clearly stated DEI vision, but operationalizing it requires being flexible and nimble in how we achieve results as we set out to address the underlying organizational systems and culture barriers in the way of truly advancing that DEI vision. 

Central for groups trying to tackle complex problems – such as integrating a DEI lens to their organization’s work, this approach is a powerful way for an organization to learn and improve collectively and quickly. It allows planners to begin with small-scale actions designed to get a firmer grip on the problem they are trying to address, what may or may not work (and why), and what areas warrant further development. 

These complex times require working on many facets of the problem at the same time, recognizing they are linked. It’s worth noting that most organizational challenges, require a combination of three things to be effective – culture, policies/practices, and data. Which of these areas you most interested in testing? 

  • Culture – e.g., you believe diversity and diverse representation is important, and you want to create an environment where diversity is valued and diverse individuals thrive.  
  • Policies and Practices – e.g., you want to empower HR and other compliance functions to create DEI policies, or place DEI as a change management priority and work to address bias across all organizational functions including programs, strategy, evaluation and fundraising.
  • Data – e.g., you are interested in collecting and disaggregating data on employees and/or beneficiaries or put in place key performance indicators to measure success of DEI initiatives within an area of work.

For individuals and organizations who have been to a training, and find themselves asking, “now what” or “what do I do with this information”, action learning can provide a path forward. Think about which area you have already identified a problem or are already working in, and whether your DEI-focused action learning should be designed for an internal audience (staff, board, leadership) or an external audience (beneficiaries, grantees). 

While building an action learning “muscle” as a team is best done with a coach or facilitator, it is possible to move an internal agenda forward by following the steps below. 

  1. Identify a tangible action you can advance in 100-day increments, and ensure you’re allocating time during those 100 days to make progress. This typically requires selecting something that is already initiated or building on existing efforts with a fresh DEI lens.  
  2. Gather a team – it’s best to have a team that represents a cross section of the organization and includes a senior leader. Encourage dissent and diversity.
  3. Support individual agency, so that you can test many things in parallel and that decisions aren’t made at the whims of those who happen to hold structural power. Foster small experiments and feed the promising ones.
  4. Craft your experiment(s) – what small bets and assumptions are you interested in testing? Answer: What will it take to ___________? The question should be generative, important and has more than one correct answer. Ask yourself: What is the learning? Is there potential innovation that could come out of this? What are expected signs of success? What are possible signs of failure?
  5. Practice accountability – Make time for planning and implementing your idea. Regroup in 100 days and ask: What have we learned from what has already happened? Separate the facts (not opinions, not conclusions) from the insights (“ah ha” moment where you make a connection you hadn’t made before). If you find some good learning and positive impact, amplify the effort and iterate. If the learning is flat or has a negative impact, pull back and try something else.

Now that you’ve got some ideas, give action learning a try and tell us about which DEI challenges you’re solving at your organization. 


Moving Beyond is an impact practice that brings data, rigor, accountability, and dynamic learning systems to operationalize diversity, equity, and inclusion practices critical to advancing impact. They work with organizations tAphat aim to have a positive environmental and social change, across impact investing, social finance, philanthropy, and sustainable business and social sectors.


Citations and Resources 

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Diversity, Inclusion and Effective Philanthropy
Stanford Social Innovation Review, Three Ways to Improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Philanthropy
Forbes, You Diversity Training Isn’t Work; Here Are 5 Ways to Fix It 
Washington Post, To improve diversity, don’t make people go to diversity training. Really.
Harvard Business Review, Bias at work
Race to Lead Report  
Impact Management Project 
Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown
Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Garvey Berger, Jennifer and Keith Johnston
Complexity and Community Change, Managing Adaptively to Improve Effectiveness, by Paticia Auspos and Mark Caba – The Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change. 

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