Using Evaluation to Become an Effective Learning Organization

We are pleased to share this content co-created with our colleagues at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), a diverse community of 500 grantmakers working to reshape the way philanthropy operates. 

Philanthropists have an obligation to learn. The best way to make smarter philanthropic investments over time—and get better results from those investments—is to generate good information about what’s working, what’s not working, and why. And evaluation is key in this process.

Evaluation can be a daunting topic for any grantmaker. Not only can it conjure up memories of being graded or scored, it can remind some grantmakers of huge expenditures that resulted in nothing more than a hefty door stopper. But just because evaluation has been overwhelming or unproductive in the past doesn’t mean it has to be going forward.

Reconsidering evaluation
More and more grantmakers are looking at evaluation in a new light. They are redefining its role in philanthropy in the five ways that follow.

1. It’s about improvement, not just proof. Evaluation is not solely about tracking the results of past investments. It is also about learning how to do a better job of achieving your goals—and then doing so. Grantmakers are making the connection between evaluation and improvement in a variety of ways. Some are using evaluation and learning as the basis for wholesale changes in grantmaking strategy. Others are investing in real time monitoring of funded programs to allow for adjustments and course corrections along the way.

2. It’s about contribution, not attribution. Evaluation has often been viewed as a way to render definitive judgments about success and failure. In many instances, however, grantmakers and their grantees aren’t necessarily able to make these sorts of judgments, for any of the following reasons:

  • One grantmaker is rarely the sole source of funding for an organization or initiative.
  • Many grants are simply too small to allow grantmakers to attribute results directly to their investments.
  • Cause-and-effect evaluations are complicated by the fact that grantmakers often focus their grantmaking on complex problems that do not lend themselves to easy answers.

In the previous cases, evaluation becomes a way to learn about the range of factors that affect progress on an issue, rather than directly attributing outcomes to specific grants.

3. It’s about learning with others, not alone. Evaluation is not solely about measuring (and improving) a funder’s results. It is also about improving the work of everyone involved in helping to achieve shared goals for social change. Funders are working alongside grantees to set evaluation measures that will be useful to both parties as funders seek to learn from their ongoing work. Funders are also providing grantees with better and more tailored support to do evaluation well. By embracing participatory evaluation and building learning communities that involve foundations, grantees, and community members, grantmakers help ensure that evaluation meets the needs of all stakeholders.

4. It’s about going beyond the individual grant. When grantmakers think about evaluation, they often think about assessing individual grants. They want information about whether a specific grantee or cluster of grants is delivering its intended results. Although this information can be useful, it rarely offers broader insights into how the grantmaker is doing as a whole. Are its overall strategies sound? What is the combined impact of its full portfolio of grants? How can it do a better job of achieving its mission? Organizational-level evaluation poses a number of challenges for grantmakers, particularly for foundations, but it can be helpful in clarifying goals and objectives and aligning operations and strategies with the grantmaker’s mission.

5. It’s about embracing failure. The failure of a grantmaking strategy or initiative can produce key insights and learning that will lead to better results in the future. Using evaluation methods, a grantmaker can put a failed project to good use by capturing lessons about what happened, why the project fell short of expectations, and how the grantmaker and its partners can achieve better results in the future.

Questions for key stakeholders

  • What can we do to strengthen our evaluation work so that it advances learning for the organization, grantees, partners, and others?
  • How can we better use data and information about our ongoing work to refine our strategies and spur key stakeholder, board, and staff discussions about how to attain better results?
  • To what extent are we talking to grantees about ways to strengthen their evaluation capacity and leverage what they learn?

Did you find this post helpful? Exponent Philanthropy members may view and download 30+ tear sheets of similar length, with key information on key topics in just 2-3 pages.

Additional resources

Exponent Philanthropy’s resources on impact and evaluation
Getting to Impact Through Evaluation
 (Exponent Philanthropy)
Evaluation in Philanthropy: Perspectives From the Field
(GEO)
Four Essentials for Evaluation (GEO)
Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter? (GEO)

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