Exit Interview: Gabi Discusses Co-Founding IssueLab, the Past 12 Years, and What's Next


December 19, 2017

With a new year comes change, whether you like it or not. And 2018 starts with a tremendous change: Gabriela Fitz will no longer be the Director of Knowledge Management Initiatives at Foundation Center. I know: what?


It’s a change that hits me, the Director of Knowledge Management Systems, particularly hard. Gabi and I have been on this journey we call IssueLab for 12 years. We managed the nonprofit start-up phase together, weathered the economic crisis of the late 2000s as co-directors of a tiny nonprofit together, moved from self-employment to FTEs at Foundation Center together – I could go on.

And now we find ourselves at yet another crossroads, one that looks like the end but — good news! — isn’t. We continue to head in the same direction where the work of evidence collection and knowledge sharing are concerned; we just won’t be doing that from the same organization. Also, we still live about eight Chicago blocks away from each other and have a coffee shop midway between our home offices.

Working together, albeit not in the same Google Doc at the same time (which I will miss), will continue. I didn’t want Gabi to simply exit. She has fans! Read on for some parting thoughts from one of the social sector’s truly fearless leaders. And Gabs, FYI: IssueLab is always looking for a few good Factivists. Just sayin’…!


LB: Gabi, we’ve been working away at this thing called social sector knowledge management for a long time now. If you had to pick one lesson you learned over the last 12 years, what would it be?

GF: That’s a hard question! I feel like I have learned so much along the way and am still learning. But the thing that probably sticks out the most is related to the very thing you touched on a moment ago, change. If change is hard for us as individuals, times that by 1000 for organizations! No matter how much we all recognize the need for improved knowledge flows – especially for those people and organizations who don’t have ready access to issue experts and convenings and large research budgets – changing our knowledge management and sharing practices is just a very very slow process. Again and again I have learned the lesson that this sort of change takes time and that you just have to keep reminding people of why the change you want to see matters.

And I know, I’m breaking the rules by picking a second lesson, but another big one for me has been about serving as a co-director. Sure, joint decision making can be hard at times but having someone to so consistently bounce ideas off of and to complement your skill set as it grows and changes is an invaluable salve for burnout. More nonprofits should try it!


LB: You’ve done so many projects – special collections on disconnected youth, access to palliative care, and risk in philanthropy. As well as knowledge syntheses (a service that you created!) on fresh water management and sustainable fisheries. Is there one project you’d say is your favorite?

GF: One of the collections that especially stands out to me is IssueLab’s special collection on Race and Policing. It’s exactly these kinds of issues that need our attention and curation, ones that the media urgently takes up for a short time but that nonprofits and community advocates have been pushing on for years. The summer of 2016 was one of those moments when we said to ourselves, wait a minute, why are the years of experience, deep knowledge, and diverse voices of organizations working on the frontlines of resisting racialized bias and abuse not a bigger part of this conversation?

At IssueLab we have always thought about our mission as helping to inform not just policy and investment decisions with knowledge from the social sector but also the conversation that’s happening around the kitchen table. The Race and Policing collection is very much about that kitchen table conversation and about saying, let’s stop arguing about whether real, documented problems exist and start acting on addressing them. Here are the facts, now let’s get to work.


LB: In recent years you’ve become increasingly involved in evaluation and impact measurement. Makes sense to me – you’ve always been a stickler for baselines. What peaks your interest in this space?

GF: I guess evaluation just speaks to the pragmatist in me. Let’s know what’s knowable and share what’s shareable! When individuals and organizations are honest and clear about their intentions, their process, and both the expected and unexpected outcomes of their work, we all have the chance to learn from the work that is being done. Evaluation is a complex endeavor but at its best it’s motivated by the simple belief that we can do better. I love that mix of complexity and clarity.


LB: What is one wish you have for IssueLab?

GF: My one big wish for IssueLab is that the collection grows to a point where people simply see using it as a necessary part of doing your job in the social sector. Whether it’s simply sharing a copy of a report when it’s complete or doing a quick search for what others already know before embarking on a new initiative, my wish is that more people come to see IssueLab as a service that belongs to them, in the same way that academics use JSTOR or lawyers use LexisNexis.


LB: What’s next?

GF: I am branching out on my own as an independent researcher and consultant. I have learned that I both love – and excel at – unpacking complex questions and helping people get to the answers they need in order to act. So I am eager to do that kind of scanning, synthesizing, and sense-making work in new ways and from a new place!

But maybe more importantly … what’s next for IssueLab, Lis?


LB: In 2018 I’ll be steering the bus towards Critical Mass and then onwards to Big Knowledge! It will require building some new digital machinery and processes in order to grab and incorporate thousands of relevant titles at a time from open repositories, websites, and data stores. I’m sort of losing my mind about the possibilities and am so excited to bring IssueLab’s users a lot more content across the issue areas we track. Of course, I’ll continue to preach about open knowledge, and help people be #OpenForGood. As you well know: there’s always more to do… So yes – the work continues! Will fill you in on new developments next time I see you at the coffee shop!