Improving Philanthropic Practice by Prioritizing Reflection & Learning

For the National Center for Family Philanthropy (NCFP)’s Family Giving Blog, Surdna’s President Don Chen speaks with NCFP’s Emerald Adeyemi about how Surdna approaches a culture of learning and reflection with staff, board, and our partners. Below is an excerpt—read the full conversation on NCFP

The Andrus Family Fund and Surdna board and staff carve out time for shared learning on a site visit to grantee partner Lead By Example Reverse The Trend (

Family philanthropy done well can achieve lasting and meaningful change in the world and within the families themselves. To be effective, NCFP believes funders must employ four principles: accountability, equity, relationships, and reflection and learning. Despite being essential to impactful funding, a commitment to reflection and learning is often the first practice to be left behind when the day-to-day is busy, and community needs are pressing. And yet, it’s through listening, curious inquiry, and a willingness to change when presented with new information, that position organizations to grow, understand their particular place in the philanthropic ecosystem, and share power with those who have greater knowledge and lived experience. 

By building reflection and learning practices into their way of being, funders can ensure that they are taking the time to understand the needs of their community, the impact they are having, and how they need to adjust to be more effective. 

To explore how funders can build a culture that prioritizes learning and humility across their governance, grantmaking, and operations in pursuit of advancing impact, we spoke to Don Chen, president and CEO of the Surdna Foundation, where he has developed structures, processes, and relationships that foster ongoing learning and adapting.  

How do you think about reflection and learning in the context of family philanthropy? 

When family foundations reflect on their efforts and share honest assessments about what they’ve learned, it’s often driven by a commitment to transparency, a desire to share lessons, and a healthy dose of humility. At Surdna, these values have motivated us to engage in reflection and learning, and we’re continually pushing ourselves to be clear about why we should invest time and money into these efforts.  

Our main goal is to contribute knowledge to the field. For foundations tackling big, complex challenges that require changes in policies, practices, and narratives (what we often refer to as “systems change”), it’s critical that we progress from hunches and hypotheses to theories, and eventually to evidence-based strategies and practices. Doing that requires us to understand the outcomes of our grantmaking and draw lessons that can help inform the effective pursuit of social change.  

Another goal is good governance. It’s critical for board members and staff members to be on the same page in terms of understanding an organization’s mission and how we’re working together to achieve it. Shared learning is an essential tool for achieving that, and especially important for family philanthropy because family members often aren’t social change professionals like foundation staff typically are. Plus, it’s good practice to develop strong working relationships so that we can move forward together. 

Read the full interview here>>