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Putting a Stop to Recreating the Wheel: Strengthening the Field of Philanthropic Evaluation
December 13, 2018

Clare Nolan is Co-Founder of Engage R+D, which works with nonprofits, foundations, and public agencies to measure their impact, bring together stakeholders, and foster learning and innovation.

Meg Long is President of Equal Measure, Philadelphia-based professional services nonprofit focused on helping its clients—foundations, nonprofit organizations, and public entities—deepen and accelerate social change.

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Clare Nolan

In 2017, Engage R+D and Equal Measure, with support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation launched an exploratory dialogue of funders and evaluators to discuss the current state of evaluation and learning in philanthropy, explore barriers to greater collaboration and impact, and identify approaches and strategies to build the collective capacity of small and mid-sized evaluation firms. Our goal was to test whether there was interest in our sector for building an affinity network of evaluation leaders working with and within philanthropy. Since our initial meeting with a few dozen colleagues in 2017, our affinity network has grown to 250 individuals nationally, and there is growing momentum for finding ways funders and evaluators can work together differently to deepen the impact of evaluation and learning on philanthropic practice.

At the recent 2018 American Evaluation Association (AEA) conference in Cleveland, Ohio, nearly 100 funders and evaluators gathered to discuss four action areas that have generated the most “buzz” during our previous network convening at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) conference and from our subsequent network survey:

1. Improving the application of evaluation in philanthropic strategy and practice.

2. Supporting the sharing and adaptation of evaluation learning for multiple users.

3. Supporting formal partnerships and collaborations across evaluators and evaluation firms.

4. Strengthening and diversifying the pipeline of evaluators working with and within philanthropy.

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Meg Long

We asked participants to choose one of these action areas and join the corresponding large table discussion to reflect on what they have learned about the topic and identify how the affinity network can contribute to advancing the field. Through crowd-sourcing, participants identified some key ways in which action teams that will be launched in early 2019 can provide a value-add to the field.

1. What will it take to more tightly connect evaluation with strategy and decision-making? Provide more guidance on what evaluation should look like in philanthropy.

Are there common principles, trainings, articles, case studies, guides, etc. that an action team could identify and develop? Could the affinity network be a space to convene funders and evaluators that work in similar fields to share evaluation results and lessons learned?

2. What will it take to broaden the audience for evaluations beyond individual organizations? Create a “market place” for knowledge sharing and incentivize participation.

As readers of this blog will know from Foundation Center’s #OpenForGood efforts, there is general agreement around the need to do better at sharing knowledge, building evidence, and being willing to share what foundations are learning – both successes and failures. How can an action team support the creation of a culture of knowledge sharing through existing venues and mechanisms (e.g., IssueLab, Evaluation Roundtable)? How could incentives be built in to support transparency and accountability?

3. How can the field create spaces that support greater collaboration and knowledge sharing among funders and evaluators? Identify promising evaluator partnership models that resulted in collaboration and not competition.

Partnerships have worked well where there are established relationships and trust and when power dynamics are minimized. How can an action team identify promising models and practices for successful collaborations where collaboration is not the main goal? How can they establish shared values, goals, etc. to further collaboration?

4. What will it take to create the conditions necessary to attract, support, and retain new talent? Build upon existing models to support emerging evaluators of color and identify practices for ongoing guidance and mentorship.

Recruiting, hiring, and retaining talent to fit evaluation and learning needs in philanthropy is challenging due to education and training programs as well as changing expectations in the field. How can we leverage and build on existing programs (e.g., AEA Graduate Education Diversity Internship, Leaders in Equitable Evaluation and Diversity, etc.) to increase the pipeline, and support ongoing retention and professional development?

Overall, we are delighted to see that there is much enthusiasm in our field to do more work on these issues. We look forward to launching action teams in early 2019 to further flesh out the ideas shared above in addition to others generated over the past year.

If you are interested in learning more about this effort, please contact Pilar Mendoza. If you would like to join the network and receive updates about this work, please contact Christine Kemler.

--Clare Nolan and Meg Long

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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