What We’re Learning About Learning and Evaluation

August 19, 2020
By: Sarah Smith - Director, Learning and Evaluation

We have a bold vision at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation. In a generation, we believe that North Carolina can be one of the healthiest states in the nation. To accomplish this vision, we recognize that everyone in North Carolina needs a fair opportunity for good health, which will require us to address the root causes of health inequities, such as systemic racism and structural inequities. And we know that our path will not be linear. To be effective we will need to learn and adapt along the way.

Understanding this, we took an important step as an organization at the start of this year – adding learning and evaluation as a function of our work. Lucky for me, that meant a new job, a move to North Carolina, and the chance to be part of a great team.

Integrating Learning and Evaluation

In my role, I’m charged with developing the organization’s overall approach to learning and evaluation - to help the Foundation and its partners better understand progress, influence strategy, and share insights. Our bold vision serves as my guide to developing a learning and evaluation function that can help us navigate toward health equity. While we are still in the early stages of developing this function, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us to adopt a learning mindset at a quicker pace than we would have otherwise. This includes the application of learning and evaluation tools and practices into unanticipated areas, such as supporting our transition to a work from home organization.

When I came onboard in mid-January, we were finishing up a strategic review to obtain clarity on what it will take for North Carolina to become one of the healthiest states in the nation and what our role should be in that pursuit. One of my first major tasks was partnering with the program staff to identify the changes we aim to achieve, envision what success would look like for our early work, and map out the contextual factors we need to monitor in order to understand and respond to opportunities and changes in the environment.

Responding to COVID-19

Just two months after I began, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in North Carolina. Soon after that, our team, like teams across the globe, transitioned to working remotely for the foreseeable future. Building on the work we had begun pre-COVID-19, we started to use learning and evaluation tools and practices in new ways as an organization to better understand how we can adjust and adapt to advance work toward our vision. During this time, learning and evaluation has allowed us to:

  • Assess and address how our team works together in a remote environment: While most staff have experience working from home, it was an adjustment to have everyone on the team working from home five days a week. We reflected on the aspects of office life that we felt were important to maintain and generated ideas to recreate those in a remote environment. For example, we now have optional weekly check-ins as a team to provide social support and continue building our team cohesion in a remote environment. These check-ins have been filled with fun costumes, tips on where to buy local produce and meat, and getting to know more about each other on a more personal level. We have also been using semi-regular staff surveys to help our leadership team develop a better understanding of challenges – both professional and personal – people are experiencing and potential solutions. The survey has helped our leadership make and communicate ongoing adjustments to better support the team and foster a more inclusive and equitable team culture.
  • Inform our immediate COVID-19 related response: The team has incorporated Emergent Learning tools – most recently Before and After Action Reviews – into our COVID-19 related response to grantmaking, communications, and operations. These emergent learning tools have helped us create space to align thinking around intended outcomes, generate ideas on how to achieve them, and test our thinking in real-time.
  • Begin to reflect on what we have learned during our COVID-19 response to support longer-term work: Recognizing the profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across our focus areas, staff engaged in a reflective exercise to document shifts in the current environment and consider the impact of these shifts on the Foundation’s work. While our long-term goals remain the same, revisiting and refining plans for our early work is helping us navigate a constantly changing environment.
  • Elevate guiding principles that will be central to our work moving forward: Through our intentional learning practices, two critical insights have continued to emerge – the need to dismantle systemic inequities and the imperative to center the leadership of those with lived experience. While these principles are not new to the Foundation, we are working to get clearer on how we can center these principles across all our efforts as a team. These principles are critical to helping the organization and its partners understand and advance progress toward our vision.

What We've Learned

These are just a few early examples of how our learning and evaluation function is both taking hold and evolving during the pandemic. Through this work, we have learned that learning and evaluation can help us build a stronger team culture, be nimble and responsive, plan for longer-term change, and understand how we are living out our guiding principles and where we have opportunities to grow.

Reflecting on my first six months at the Foundation, I feel so grateful to be in North Carolina and part of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation team. I look forward to continuing our learning journey and getting to know all of the communities and organizations working with us to create one of the healthiest states in the nation, in a generation.


About the Author

Sarah Smith is the Director, Learning and Evaluation for the Blue Cross NC Foundation. Read bio.