How to Build a Culture of Learning: Part 1

Author: Ami Novoryta

As we celebrate the 10-year anniversary of LEO, we are sharing a special "how to" series guest-authored by some of our awesome provider partners. Below, Catholic Charities Chicago shares the first of a two-part blog series on how to build a culture of evidence. 

How-to: Build a Culture of Learning – Part 1
By: Ami Novoryta, Chief Program Officer, Catholic Charities Chicago


More than a century after we began serving our neighbors, today Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago (“Catholic Charities”) is one of the largest human services providers in our region. 

With over 1,200 employees and an operating budget of $180 million, we serve more than 375,000 people every year. Our teams work to improve lives and nourish spirits; strengthen and empower people, families, and communities; and create and share opportunities for living our faith and values. Catholic Charities offers more than 40 programs at over 80 locations, and our impact spans immediate access and basic needs; children, youth, and families; seniors; and housing.

The work is inspiring, it is humbling, and, yes, it can feel daunting at times!  

To guide us through both the big stuff and the day-to-day, we have identified what I see as our North Star. Simply put, this is the thing that our leaders come back to again and again, sometimes deliberately and increasingly by instinct, as we make decisions and chart the path forward. At Catholic Charities, our North Star takes the shape of four organizing principles. 

These principles serve many purposes across our organization. They create a common language across teams and disciplines, and they are an anchor during times of change and uncertainty (in other words, all the time). They remind us who we are and why we step up to the plate every morning. 

And, perhaps most importantly for the people we are privileged to serve, our organizing principles are helping us build what I like to think of as a dynamic learning culture – one that is grounded in a shared desire to create meaningful impact. These principles, which somehow simultaneously feel universal and tailor-made, call on us to do the following:

  • Invert the pyramid as we live our values: Putting our clients and front-line teams first. 

We are called to create a culture and community where Jesus’ teachings come to life, assuring that all team members and clients feel seen, heard, and valued. We serve with compassion, respect, stewardship, and excellence.

  • Be aware of the allure (and distraction) of scale: Recognizing that God’s math is not human math.

Each life is sacred. We are called to be present, one person at a time, to the pain and longing that lies within each heart. The rest will follow.

  • Amplify the impact of our work: Focusing on areas where our Catholic identity, our network, and our century of service make us a unique and valued partner.

The provision of human services is not a competition – there is plenty of need to go around. Each provider is our partner in God’s call to serve. It is up to us to recognize, proclaim, and allow the Holy Spirit to enliven our unique role in the call to serve. That is when we flourish.

  • Regularly reflect: Asking God, how are we called to serve, learn, and grow?

Client and community impact—by making a tangible difference in people’s lives, and by sharing stories of mercy and hope—is how we witness through service. As trusted stewards, we are called to do more and do better with the resources and people entrusted to our care.

In 2021, coming through the heart of the pandemic and with a new (fabulous) CEO at our helm, we entered into a period of reflection - and these organizing principles proved their mettle.  

Among other things, our discussions led us to take a closer look at our research agenda. We re-evaluated if and how projects amplified our impact on the people we serve. We assessed how each effort could help us and others in the fight against poverty. And we took a hard look at whether we were putting our limited resources to the best possible use.

Our reflections led us to some uncomfortable realities and conversations. The truth was, we could do more and better with the resources and people in our care. So we hit the brakes on efforts underway.  And we got clearer on what needs to be in place so that our clients and our teams are truly ready to enter into research. 

Those factors turned out to be simple. The research needs to be informed first and foremost by our clients and front-line staff. It needs to hold sacred the interactions between our teams and our clients—these are not transactions, they are indeed a privilege. In most cases, our research needs to deeply engage partners, because we will learn more and go farther together. And of course, we need to be confident that we are stretching each dollar as far as it will go.

Now we know what we will say “yes” to—and that has opened the door to exciting new research initiatives, one of which I’ll discuss next month.

Keep an eye out for part two in April! 

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