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3 Insights for Evaluation

Publication date: 
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Caitlin StantonDirector of Learning and Partnerships, Urgent Action Fund

Many evaluations are guided a by time-tested set of questions: what happened? how efficiently and effectively were the results achieved? What are the next steps? Speakers at GEO's 2014 Conference in Los Angeles are asking some additional questions. In doing so, they add important layers of nuance to the foundational practices of evaluation in philanthropy. Here are three top take-aways on evaluation from the first two days of the GEO Conference:

1) Make the space to talk about values.
Carol Larson spoke about her efforts to put values at the center of the work of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. As a result, evaluation at the Packard Foundation now includes asking to what extent the foundation's work embodies its values. All of us have the opportunity to incorporate similar questions into our own evaluation practice. For instance, if a foundation values accountability, to what extent has it been transparent about decision-making processes? If we value flexibility and adaptation, what percentage of our funding was awarded in unrestricted support? If we value inclusivity, have we made a space to hear our critics? Anonymous staff surveys and grantee perception reports are two evaluation tools that the Packard Foundation, and others, have used to assess values in action.

2) Evaluate the effectiveness of the ecosystem.
Manuel Pastor, a Professor of Sociology, American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, shared findings on measuring the impact of movements and movement-building strategies. Developed in conversation with grassroots movement leaders, the approach he shared adds a curiosity about the broader health and vibrancy of social movements (the "ecosystem" in which nonprofit organizations work) to our work on evaluation. It leads us to ask questions like: How influential is the movement? Is it growing? What are its leadership capacity needs? How diverse is its leadership? Asking these questions at the movement level, and not only the organizational level, is a practice that supports collaboration and sustainability.

You can download and read Manuel Pastor's report (written with Jennifer Ito and Rachel Rosner) here:

3) Embrace the messiness.
If the problems that foundations are trying to solve were simple, they'd probably be solved already. They're not. The challenges addressed by nonprofits and the foundations that support them are almost always complex, even "wicked" problems. They involve many actors and many factors and often there isn't even consensus about the outcomes themselves, let alone the outcome indicators. Like a child with a tray full of finger paints, we must embrace this messiness with joy and a readiness to learn. Hallie Preskill of FSG shared one model for how to do this (Collective Impact) and, more precisely, a model for how to evaluate it (the Collective Impact Evaluation Framework.) GEO attendees got a sneak peek, but the full Evaluation Framework won't be released until next month. This approach pushes us to ask questions like: what indicators will tell our sector/our community if change is really happening? As opposed to: what indicator might tell me about the impact of my grant? It's fundamentally about contribution, and not attribution. Since shared measurement can be logistically challenging, this approach may also push us to focus and to be more intentional with the data we gather – collecting only what will be credible and useful.

FSG will be offering a webinar on connecting evaluation and learning in April. More info here:

Throughout these presentations, one question routinely popped up: do you need a big budget to do this kind of evaluation? While a funder could drop some big bucks on this, Sara Beggs, of the Association for Small Foundations, had a different response. In her session on making evaluation and learning accessible for small foundations, she emphasized that these practices tap into skills that grantmakers may already possess. Facilitating conversations, supporting cultures of learning, and starting with the self-awareness that "you don't have all the answers" are practices that any funder can begin to cultivate, even without a large evaluation budget.


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