Back to top

Throw Off the Shackles – You Do Have Enough

Sara BeggsSenior Program Manager, Association of Small Foundations

Note: The following blog post originally appeared on the Association of Small Foundations PhilanthroFiles blog.

In a world in which philanthropy battles some of society’s greatest ills, we’re tempted to adopt a scarcity mindset—not enough money, not enough time, not enough staff. And the corollary: there are certainly not enough resources for learning and evaluation!

It’s time to throw off the shackles of this mindset and instead think of what you can do.

Do your best to learn, and be satisfied even if your approach is small and piecemeal. John Bare of the Arthur M. Blank Foundation and formerly a Knight Foundation evaluation staffer once told me: “No one does textbook evaluation. Just do what you can with the resources you have.” Funders with few or no staff rarely have the resources to take on exhaustive evaluation efforts, but that doesn’t mean learning has to go by the wayside.

Consider the impact of asking one small but thoughtful question as you award your grants. To facilitate learning over the course of its grants, The Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation asks grantees, What do you need to know to plan for the future, improve the program, and allocate resources more effectively?

Foundation co-founder Jenny Shilling Stein shares how this question helps grantees create a learning agenda. For example, FoodCorps, a nationwide team of leaders that connects kids to real food and helps them grow up healthy, used the question to focus its learning on issues critical to its success, such as: What makes a field partner good at this work? How solid is our delegated field management? What are the minimum criteria for success at a school?

Deliberately engage in the many ways to promote learning—many that you’ve likely explored. A broad range of strategies can be used to foster learning among funders and their grantees:
• Acquiring deep knowledge about a field and community
• Appropriately engaging all stakeholders in meaningful dialogue
• Asking important questions and stating difficult facts that others may hesitate to mention
• Understanding the dynamics involved and mediating discussions among key players
• Identifying important patterns from field data that individuals may miss
John Bare and I will present more on this topic at the 2014 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) National Conference, March 10-12.

Set your mind to love learning—even when it’s hard. Funders that love to learn are able to:
• Listen to feedback about changes that could improve their work
• Share their learning and their mistakes so the learning is extended beyond themselves
• Facilitate honest dialogue in which grantees can share what’s not working so that improvements can be made
• And much more

How are you throwing off the shackles of a scarcity mindset and learning as a result?

Related resources
ASF’s resources on impact and evaluation
Continual Learning Through Intention and Evaluation
Testing Our Intentions Against Our Outcomes: And Then, What’s Next?
Simplifying Complex Learning Techniques for Small-Staff Grantmakers, a session at GEO’s 2014 National Confernence | March 10-12, Los Angeles

Bio: Sara Beggs is senior program manager at the Association of Small Foundations. Currently, she focuses her energy on helping members make the greatest difference possible through the Getting to Impact initiative.

» Join the conversation! Add your comments here

Funding Issue Area & Geographic Regions
Type of resource