January 15, 2016

Knowledge Management

Proactively collecting, reflecting on, sharing, and integrating knowledge and insights, in order to improve a nonprofit's practices and programs.

Knowledge management is a systematic process by which an organization formalizes the collection, capture, assessment, sharing, and integration of staff experience and learning for the purpose of advancing the organization's mission. It can involve a wide variety of practices and systems, of differing complexity and formality, both people-enabled and technology-enabled.

How it's used

Organizational learning is critical to any nonprofit's ability to progress and improve. Accordingly, nonprofits that are committed to increasing their effectiveness tend to embrace intentional methods of managing the knowledge they generate by collecting data and findings from their work, reflecting on them, sharing insights, and using them to improve practices, programs, and processes. At their best, knowledge-management processes integrate these practices into the way staff members work on a daily basis to ensure both efficient capture and application of learning.

Ultimately, the goal of knowledge management is to capture and apply the collective know-how of all members of an organization in order to advance its mission. This can happen in two distinct ways: Internal knowledge management helps an organization improve and strengthen its own capabilities and performance; external knowledge management extends an organization's insights beyond its four walls to influence its field or overall sector.


  • Cultivate a culture of learning.
  • Avoid reinventing the wheel.
  • Establish an organization's institutional learning processes.
  • Strengthen an organization's programs, services, and operations by sharing best practices across programs or sites.
  • Spark innovative ideas among internal teams.


  • Influence the field by sharing critical insights through articles, conference presentations, websites, and blogs.
  • Collaborate with peers to develop cross-sector or cross-organization insights.
  • Disseminate best practices.
  • Advocate policies and positions.


Knowledge management should be supported by the entire organization, and while some organizations have a full team of knowledge managers, or "brokers," others assign the responsibility to a single staff member. Of course, there will be variations in each organization's techniques and platforms for collecting and sharing knowledge, but below are four guiding steps to employing strong knowledge management:

  1. Gain leadership's support: To ensure a strong knowledge-management process, it is critical to have the support of the organization's leadership. Make clear the importance of institutional learning and encourage leaders to serve as models for the entire organization.
  2. Cultivate a learning culture: It is important It is important to have all staff involved in the knowledge-management process, as knowledge lies with individuals. Create a culture of continuous improvement and learning by setting goals for institutional learning, developing incentives for participating in knowledge development (e.g., include contribution to institutional knowledge in staff assessment and development), and celebrating knowledge contributions.
  3. Define learning structure: Set roles and responsibilities for the knowledge-management process, including staff accountabilities and developing knowledge managers.
  4. Develop intuitive processes: Consider how the organization already works and identify ways to integrate knowledge management into the organization's everyday work (e.g., share best practices via an existing forum or platform).

Related topics

Additional resources

The Challenge of Organizational Learning
Disseminating insights and know-how across any organization is critical to improving performance, but nonprofits struggle to implement organizational learning and make it a priority. A recent study found three common barriers to knowledge sharing across nonprofits and their networks, as well as ways to overcome them. This article contains guidance on how to create a culture of organizational learning and overcome challenges.

Making Organizational Learning Stick: How to Set Your Knowledge Goals and Blend Technology and People Processes to Reach Them
Provides guidance on setting knowledge goals and developing a knowledge strategy to manage an organization's learning practice. All organizations stand to benefit from internal knowledge capture—highlighting good ideas and sharing good practices. Some organizations also fulfill their missions by engaging with external sharing across their fields or to advance learning as a whole. Whether your goals are internal, external, or both, the right combination of technology- and people-powered processes will play a part in reaching them.

Knowing is Not Enough: A sampling of knowledge management approaches in the nonprofit sector
This resource from the Monitor Institute highlights the importance of knowledge management as well as offers practical approaches to implementing a knowledge-management system.

Examples and case studies

The Role of Knowledge Management in the Large Non-Profit Firm: Building a Framework for KM Success This article takes a scholastic approach to the study of knowledge-management systems in the nonprofit sector while examining four large Australian nonprofits and their knowledge-management systems.

Knowledge Management: A Discovery Process
This article outlines how the history of how the McKnight Foundation came to feel an internal knowledge process was necessary, and then details the steps the foundation took to determine what kind of knowledge-management model it should use.

Case studies in Knowledge Management
This book provides 20 case studies on implementing knowledge-management systems in for-profit organizations in a variety of industries and countries.

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