Learning Labs

About the Labs

In the Fall of 2020, Workforce Matters launched three Peer-to-Peer Learning labs which provided a table for funders to come together to share information about their own grant making, discuss tough questions, and explore strategies alongside their peers. Each learning lab convened virtually for a total of three 90-minute sessions. Each learning lab provided funders with the opportunity to explore one of the following topics: Advancing Equitable Employer Practices; Amplifying the Voice and Power of Workers and Learners; or Redesigning Workforce Policies and Systems for Equity and Resiliency.  The conversations were invigorating, challenging and honest. Outlined below are the major themes and takeaways across all three labs as well as key themes and takeaways for each topic along with a few practical examples of how participants are applying what they learned in their session.

These key, recurring themes emerged consistently across all three learning labs:

  • Be prepared for the long haul - Advancing the work of equity (in general) and racial equity (specifically) is a marathon, not a sprint, because the change we seek is systemic and systemic change takes time.
  • Count the small wins - Because this work is long-term, it’s important to count the small things and celebrate the small victories, especially in community.
  • Partnerships can lead to greater impact - There are a lot of funders working on similar issues but there isn’t always an opportunity to learn about these and/or partner on new initiatives that can have greater impact.
  • Build community - Creating space for topical and intentional discussion and reflection is important for building relationships and for identifying common themes and challenges.
  • Be strategic - Multi-prong approaches such as “Inside/Outside” strategies are important and necessary to seed and lead the kinds of systems level changes that are needed for equity.

What participants are saying about how they are acting on key takeaways from learning labs...

“We are formalizing a process for recruiting, hiring, and managing interns, recognizing that we can influence diversifying our future pipeline into our organization and increasing equitable access into the field of philanthropy. This includes reviewing and expanding our recruitment practices to go beyond existing relationships, and look at broadening high school, community college and public higher education options.  We are also looking at standardizing the hiring process to ensure consistency, reduce bias, and support intern managers in helping interns develop transferable skills.”

Natalie Applegate, Educate Texas, Community Foundation of Texas

"We are considering what impact our grant goals may have on grantees’ efforts to help clients secure quality, good fit jobs. We are exploring whether to expand upon the placement metrics we currently focus on, by gathering input from grantees, to ensure we convey the message that quality and fit of job placements is more important than the volume."

Talia Nagar, Tipping Point Community

“As a collective, centering workers is key to our theory of change. The primary vehicle to practice this is through our Equity at Work Council, a cross-sector table that leads our strategy. Currently, we’re in the process of co-creating with them what it would look like to share power in determining what impact we seek and who to fund to accomplish that impact. Their frontline leadership, unique composition, and deep experience in community is expansive. We are committed to honoring them as equal partners.”

Kayla Tolentino, ReWork the Bay

"We are supporting an effort to strengthen and boost an ecosystem of low-wage worker organizing in Minnesota. It specifically supports collaborations between worker centers and unions. This grantmaking table is unique in that it is led-by the people who are doing the work of amplifying the voice and power of workers. It’s a good example of the level of strategic thinking and partnerships needed to disrupt the current system that has been designed to suppress worker voice and power. This MN-based coalition is builds off of the work of a national funder collaboration called the LIFT Fund- The Labor Innovations for the 21st Century Fund (LIFT)."

Jen Racho, Northwest Area Foundation

Key Take-Aways


Advancing Equitable Employer Practices

Workforce Equity is when the workforce is inclusive of people of color and other marginalized or underrepresented groups at a rate representative of the employer’s local community and where institutional and structural barriers impacting employee attraction, hiring, retention, and advancement have been eliminated, enabling opportunity for employment success and career growth.  In this session, we explored a few questions such as: what would it look like for philanthropy to actively and financially support equitable employment practices.

These themes emerged as key takeaways for participants:

  • Equity matters at all times - It is important to infuse equity and inclusion in all conversations about employment, both internally and externally. Equally as important is the need to influence practice changes internally before expecting external partners to change. Understanding manifestations in employment inequity internally better equips funders to influence external partners.
  • Leveraging influence - Influencing employers can happen both directly (through direct engagement with employers) or indirectly (through grant making to workforce development organizations and through partnership with grantees).
  • Check your assumptions - When influencing through grant making, it’s important not to make an assumption about where grantees are with their own understanding of racial equity practices.
  • Be intentional - Funders can play a critical role in supporting grantees to address power imbalances and make more intentional decisions when choosing an employer partner.
  • The work is complex - Although uniquely positioned to influence equitable employer practices, grant makers in corporate philanthropy experienced additional complexities navigating employer practice change, particularly when it comes to ensuring corporate practices are aligned with stated philanthropic priorities.

Amplifying the Voice and Power of Workers and Learners

Workers and learners are at the core of our workforce development grant making, but too often their ideas, perspectives, and feedback are absent from the design, management, and evaluation of workforce programs. In this session, we explored questions such as: what does it look like to be truly inclusive to shift power and decision making to job candidates, workers and learners.  This group used the following definitions as a starting point for the conversation:

  • Voice – individual or collective efforts of workers to have a say or influence on workplace issues of interest to them and/or to their employer (s)
  • Power – ability of workers to get employer(s) to do something the employer (s) would not do on their own. Sometimes this is referred to as “bargaining power”.
  • Representation – a group or organization that speaks for a collective group of workers. [1]

These themes emerged as key takeaways for participants:

  • Definitions matter - There are different definitions for worker/learner voice and worker power. It’s really important to get clear on the definitions you are using when talking about worker/learner voice vs. worker/learner power.
  • Framing matters - How you talk about worker power within the organization matters for example, it’s important to make these conversations productive and engaging rather than confrontational.
  • Formalize feedback loops - It’s important to build worker/learner voice and power into the grant making processes in formal ways.
  • Perception matters - Worker power is often perceived as a negative thing by the employer. This reflection raised questions about shifting this perception and the role of the grant maker in shifting this perception.
  • Place matters - It’s important to consider the impact of local, state and regional policies on worker/learner voice, worker/learner power and worker/learner representation.
  • Visible doesn’t equate to Valued - Even though workers are visible right now, many of them are still not quite valued. This reflection raised questions about valuing workers and the role of philanthropy in ensuring that workers are valued.
  • Language matters - language can be used as a strategy to avoid the negative perceptions associated with worker voice/power, for example using the terms lived experience and human centered as an approach can allow for a grant maker to support the amplification of worker power/voice.

[1] Worker Voice, Representation, and Implications for Public Policy, Kochan, T.A. https://workofthefuture.mit.edu/research-post/worker-voice-representation-and-implications-for-public-policies/

Redesigning Workforce Policies and Systems for Equity and Resiliency

The economic recession caused by COVID-19 and the uprisings for racial justice has given us an opportunity to examine workforce development policies and systems and to re-envision them to support greater equity and worker resiliency. In this session, we explored questions such as: how can philanthropy authentically engage with field partners to update our approaches to policy and systems change?

These themes emerged as key takeaways for participants:

  • Hold the tension - Policy is complex but we have to learn to hold the complexity of the work while also thinking about and meeting the individual needs of those who are unemployed and underemployed.
  • Eliminate silos - It is really important to break down the silos between workforce development and worker advocacy and policy efforts.
  • Embed equity and justice - This work has to be steeped in racial equity and racial justice efforts if sustainable policy and systems change will ever be achieved.
  • Alignment is critical - We must be careful to distinguish between policy making and policy implementation. This reflection raised questions about aligning these efforts in a meaningful and productive way.
  • Historical context matters - It’s important to consider the unintentional consequences of law and policy. Grant makers can benefit from a deeper understanding of the historical policies that created the current context and contributed to the “unintended consequences” of inequity.
  • Making the case - It’s easier to tell individual change stories and secure funding for these types of investments. If we want to support long-term systems-level change, grant makers must learn how to effectively tell the story and impact of longer term systems change investments.
  • Leveraging power - Philanthropy has convening power and can use this power to impact and influence systems and policy change at the local, state and regional levels.