Building a learning NGO by design, not by accident. A study of change at The Fred Hollows Foundation

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Copyright: Neyhouser, Camille
There is some evidence in the literature that organisational learning (OL) is gaining momentum among international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), as a means to strengthen capacity to serve the most vulnerable populations in a context of increasing economic constraints. Following a major operational change undertaken in 2014-2015 at The Fred Hollows Foundation, a public health INGO focused on treating and preventing blindness and other vision problems in developing countries, the need to become a better learning organisation was identified. This thesis examines the processes of identifying suitable initiatives for OL at The Foundation, as well as the findings from and outcomes of those processes, which include the development of a strategy addressing its OL and knowledge management needs. Conducted from a practitioner-researcher perspective, a mixed-method approach was undertaken including a survey, semi-structured interviews and focus-group discussions with staff members from the Foundation. Their purpose was to examine perceptions of The Foundation’s performance as a learning organisation and implications for the future. In addition, semi-structured interviews were conducted with representatives from other INGOs and public health NGOs that had a reputation for performing well as learning organisations. Empirical findings show that in a complex and rapidly changing operating environment, INGOs have a strong incentive to become learning organisations. Factors influencing OL include: allocation of resources; developing structures, systems and processes; inspired leadership that acts as a role model; and fostering a culture of learning, including by promoting relevant skillsets and behaviours. Eight categories identified in the literature to classify specific mechanisms were validated by this study and a new category emerged outlining the importance of sharing the knowledge produced within the organisation with the wider sector. Based on these findings, an evidence-informed strategy tailored to the needs of The Foundation was developed. There is a need for INGOs to proactively engage with the burgeoning OL field to achieve optimal programming outcomes and cost-effectiveness. It is recommended that they apply a similar methodology to the one described in this study, including a rigorous assessment process against the categories identified, and the development of a comprehensive, custom-made strategy.
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Neyhouser, Camille
Bunde-Birouste, Anne
Seale, Holly
Meyer, Lois
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PhD Doctorate
UNSW Faculty
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