Culture of Curiosity: How WRF Learned to Improve


Over the last decade, WRF took an iterative approach to Moving the Needle (MTN). In fact, the Foundation took stock about halfway through that period and made midcourse corrections. As one of the stakeholder interviews conducted as part of the Reflection, Analysis, Planning (RAP) process reflected:

What we've got in the poor areas of Arkansas are people who want just as much, will work just as hard, but will need some capacity building to get to a point that they can believe and do some of the things that they want. Part of the work in this area is going to be exposing people to how good it can be so they have legitimate goals in place that they are working towards.

According to an internal report about the Foundation’s analysis of its place-based investments, “As part of MTN 2.0, the Foundation recognized the importance of building the capacity of key intermediary organizations that organize, engage, and mobilize Arkansas residents in support of local and state-level policy change.” After getting feedback and reflecting on what was and was not working well, the Foundation shifted its place-based strategy away from direct engagement in select locations to investments in nonprofits that had a track record of effective community building.

WRF has a strong learning culture that was key to what the Foundation and its partners accomplished throughout MTN, which no doubt contributed to MTN’s impact on prosperity, education, community strength, and nonprofit infrastructure in Arkansas.

Thus it may come as no surprise that the WRF board and staff threw themselves into the Reflection and Analysis phases of the RAP Process with gusto, investing a tremendous amount of time in...being curious.

Talking to its partners, community leaders, Board, and national content experts, WRF staff asked many questions beyond just “What are we doing well, and what can we do better?” They asked residents and community partners:

  • What are you most proud of? What do you love about your community?

  • What does prosperity mean to you? Why haven’t WRF and our partners made greater progress toward increasing prosperity for all Arkansans?

They asked experts:

  • What are the systems and subsystems that WRF seeks to influence to increase prosperity in Arkansas? What characteristics of Arkansas support or prevent increasing prosperity for all residents?

  • What other models and modes of thinking, such as asset framing, futurism, and two-generation approaches, can help us understand Arkansas’s challenges and design strategies to tackle them?

They asked themselves:

  • What does data from MTN tell us about our impact?

  • What have we learned about outcomes in Asset Building, Program Related Investments (PRIs), Early Childhood, Higher Education, Immigration, and Public Policy?

Foundation staff and Board were diligent, methodical, and thorough in their inquiries. The proof is in the 130-page learning compendium that the Board of Directors received at their September 2017 meeting!

What did WRF glean from all this? Many rich lessons and areas for improvement. The story is a study in contrasts–the tremendous accomplishments throughout MTN by the Foundation and its many public, private, and nonprofit partners, juxtaposed with the need for new approaches to respond to an increasingly challenging political environment and entrenched systems that inhibit further progress.

Here’s one takeaway that stands out: A culture of agility, feedback loops, and learning will continue to be critical as the Foundation seeks to influence complex systems that affect prosperity in Arkansas. Any efforts to address structural racism and deep-seated political dynamics to reshape systems and shift power can have unintended consequences, requiring adjustments to strategy along the way. The trusting relationships WRF staff have built, and their continued curiosity, will ensure honest input from partners to inform the Foundation's work throughout the next decade of change. 

We are sharing what we and our partners learned from our year of Analysis in our “Analysis: Digging Deep” blog series. This series is part of our Reflection, Analysis, and Planning (RAP) process, which the Foundation is engaging in as our Moving the Needle (MTN) 2.0 strategic plan draws to a close and we prepare for what comes next.

Disclosure: Lisa Ranghelli wrote this series of blog posts on behalf of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), in fulfillment of a contract between WRF and NCRP. At the time the consulting contract was initiated, WRF President and CEO Sherece Y. West-Scantlebury was Board Chair for NCRP. As with other consultants involved in the Foundation’s Reflection, Analysis, and Planning (RAP) process, NCRP was compensated for writing this content on what the Foundation learned during its year of Analysis.