By Elaine Gast Fawcett, on behalf of ASF
Small-staffed foundations have caught the What Works fever. They want to know what works in their grantmaking in order to have the most impact. After all, the more foundations can show how their own grants are making a difference, the more value they can bring to their communities.
To find out what works, foundations look to evaluation. But in small-staffed foundations, who has the time for evaluation? And among those who do evaluation, how much of the data gathered is actually meaningful or valuable?
According to John Bare of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation in Atlanta, the What Works fever (he calls it a movement) evolved from the notion that we can use science to cure social problems. In his example: Just as water boils at a certain temperature, we can apply certain factors to all small towns that will eliminate teen pregnancy.
If only it were that easy.
Bare discussed the need to know what works with a group of 30 ASF members at the Impact Working Group Symposium. The group came together to focus on increasing impact in philanthropy—both in their own foundations, as well as those around them.
Evaluation can seem overwhelming, Bare said, mainly because people focus on the task of evaluation—the how—rather than the purpose behind evaluation—the why.
Before you even consider the countless ways you might evaluate a grant program, he said, first ask yourselves: Who is going to use this evaluation, and for what purpose? That, said Bare, is the critical question.
Participants agreed that large-scale evaluation can cost a lot of time and money, and good results are not always guaranteed. However, evaluation doesn’t have to be that complicated, said Bare, as long as it stays focused on the purpose.
One way to do it is to ask your grantees regularly for feedback, he said. He encouraged foundations to ask: What feedback do we need to track, and at what frequency, to celebrate what’s working and make adjustments when needed?
Evaluation, in those terms, sounds a whole lot simpler.
For more on this topic, see ASF’s FAQs on Impact and Evaluation.
Elaine Gast Fawcett helps foundations tell their story, educate their stakeholders, and move their mission forward. For 12 years, she has worked nationally to strengthen the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors as a communications and grantmaking consultant. Originally from the Maryland/DC area, Elaine now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Ted and brand new baby Scarlett. Reach Elaine at Elaine@fourwindswriting.com or on Twitter @4WindsWriting.