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How Improved Evaluation Sharing Has the Potential to Strengthen a Foundation’s Work
July 27, 2017

Jen GlickmanJennifer Glickman is manager, research team, at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new research and tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

Philanthropy is a complex, demanding field, and many foundations are limited in the amount of resources they can dedicate to obtaining and sharing knowledge about their practices. This makes it necessary to consider, then, in what areas should foundations focus their learning and sharing efforts to be #OpenForGood?

Last year, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) released two research reports exploring this question. The first, Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency, looks at foundation CEOs’ perspectives on what it means to be transparent, who the primary audiences are for foundations’ transparency efforts, and what is most important for foundations to share.

The second report, Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices, presents benchmarking data collected from senior foundation staff with evaluation responsibilities on topics such as evaluation staffing and structures, investment in evaluation work, and the usefulness of evaluation information. Together, these reports provide meaningful insights into how foundations can learn and share knowledge most effectively.

CEP’s research found that there are specific topics about which foundation CEOs believe being transparent could potentially increase their foundation’s ability to be effective. These areas include the foundation’s grantmaking processes, its goals and strategies, how it assesses its performance, and the foundation’s experiences with what has and has not worked in its efforts to achieve its programmatic goals. While foundation CEOs believe their foundations are doing well in sharing information about their grantmaking, goals, and strategies, they say their foundations are much less transparent about the lessons they learn through their work.

CEP Transparency Graphic

For example, nearly 70 percent of the CEOs CEP surveyed say being transparent about their foundation’s experiences with what has worked in its efforts to achieve its programmatic goals could increase effectiveness to a significant extent. In contrast, only 46 percent say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about these experiences. Even fewer, 31 percent, say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about what has not worked in their programmatic efforts, despite 60 percent believing that being transparent about this topic could potentially increase their effectiveness to a significant extent.

And yet, foundations want this information about lessons learned and think it is important. Three-quarters of foundation CEOs say they often seek out opportunities to learn from other foundations’ work, and is that it enables others to learn from foundation work more generally.

How is knowledge being shared then? According to our evaluation research, foundations are mostly sharing their programmatic knowledge internally. Over three-quarters of the evaluation staff who responded to our survey say evaluation findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the foundation’s CEO, and 66 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with foundation staff. In comparison:

  • Only 28 percent of respondents say evaluation findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the foundation’s grantees;
  • 17 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with other foundations; and
  • Only 14 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the general public.

CEP Evaluation Survey Graphic

In fact, less than 10 percent of respondents say that disseminating evaluation findings externally is a top priority for their role.

But respondents do not think these numbers are adequate. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say their foundation invests too little in disseminating evaluation findings externally. Moreover, when CEP asked respondents what they hope will have changed for foundations in the collection and/or use of evaluation information in five years, one of the top three changes mentioned was that foundations will be more transparent about their evaluations and share what they are learning externally.

So, if foundation CEOs believe that being transparent about what their foundation is learning could increase its effectiveness, and foundation evaluation staff believe that foundations should be investing more in disseminating findings externally, what is holding foundations back from embracing an #OpenForGood approach?

CEP has a research study underway looking more deeply into what foundations know about what is and isn’t working in their practices and with whom they share that information, and will have new data to enrich the current conversations on transparency and evaluation in early 2018. In the meanwhile, take a moment to stop and consider what you might #OpenForGood.

--Jennifer Glickman

Comments

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Hi Chris,

Thanks for your comment! I agree with you that there needs to be a commitment to transparency across areas This post purposely focused on evaluation, but we have collected and shared data about transparency practices surrounding goals, strategies, investments, governance, funding decisions, application criteria, and the selection process as well. We actually found that the majority of foundations are being rather transparent about their strategies, selection criteria, and types of grants awarded (both through CEO self-reported data and through an independent analysis of foundation websites). However, there is always work to be done!

I also think your point about sharing information about grantees is an interesting one, and the issue of not being transparent to protect grantees comes up a lot. We found in our research, though, that only 22% of foundation CEOs say that they limit their level of transparency because they believe revealing information about projects could put grantee organizations at risk. Additionally, only 19% say that they limit their level of transparency because they believe sharing information about what did not work could potentially hurt grantees' chances of receiving support from other funders. But I'd be curious to hear more about the implications of sharing critical information about grantees and the prevalence of this concern.

Thanks again!

Best,
Jen

Thank you for your analysis of transparency issues among Foundations. I believe strongly in the independence and autonomy of Foundations, but feel that it should be counter-balanced by a commitment to transparency in all regards.

I also worked hard to share the results of evaluations when I was a Foundation leader. However, I think there are barriers you haven't captured. Foundations are both loath to be self-critical on issues (strategies, selection, project design, funding, support of grantees), but even more loath to be critical of their grantees. Can you imagine a report that said "This grantee was deceptive from the get go about their capabilities, intentions, and interests. They didn't do what they promised and hid their failures as long as possible." I've had grantees like that - who hasn't. But saying that in public? I'm not sure.

Regardless of the plausibility of being transparent about evaluation results, I still think that a true low hanging fruit is being transparent about proposals and funded proposals. The feds at NIH share a lot of info about funded proposals -- we should do at least as much. Once the promises in proposals and the various strategies and spending plans are public knowledge, then it will be much easier and more appropriate to share the "results."

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