As we reach the time when many grantees have submitted final grant reports for the previous year’s efforts, what better time to reflect and elaborate on the problems with grantee reporting requirements discussed by Kevin Bolduc’s post on the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) blog? As a network of foundation evaluation and learning directors, we believe shifting reporting requirements is an incremental step in a time that demands more transformational change. Better to ask: what is the intent of reporting? If the purpose is to learn, a better way forward becomes more evident.
Imagine a future in which humanity has managed to solve society’s most significant challenges — a world where people live with full agency over their lives in just and healthy communities. Now imagine this achievement happening without collective learning and accountability toward greater effectiveness. You can’t because it wouldn’t be possible.
Since no one entity or organization holds the solutions to the complex issues we face, to successfully respond, we must deeply invest in learning and growing together, across disciplines and differences, iteratively and quickly. For foundations, this means learning and changing in ways that rectify the disproportionate power and influence we hold. It means strengthening our capacity for gathering feedback, critical inquiry, and learning in ways that surface how our grantmaking is or is not advancing equitable outcomes, including by adopting practices described in the Equitable Evaluation Framework and Holding Foundations Accountable for Equity Commitments.
Looking at reporting requirements within this broader learning context also points to the critical need to more often learn by listening to people most impacted by our grants. Why? Because making durable change on the ground requires working with people in communities. This learning frame also points to the need for foundations to prioritize growing capacity internally with staffing and resources to engage with grantee partners for the purpose of learning for adaptation.
With those changes, we’ll be more likely to move away from the current practice of individual foundations being the curators and assumed audience of evaluation learning. With a more collective orientation, we’ll see an increase in transparency and access to data that enables more collaborative ecosystems of learning. In order to get there, bigger picture investments in the enterprise of learning might include:
- Incorporating learning and information gathering as a core strategy in our work for transformation
- Funding movement and field-level learning over the long term
- Investing in complexity-aware evaluation methods
- Supporting a pipeline of evaluators equipped with culturally responsive and equitable evaluation expertise
- Mobilizing collective learning and knowledge creation through convening, engagement, and publication
- Equitably addressing underinvestment in grantee learning staff and systems over the long term
This final point merits extra emphasis: we need to rectify the chronic underinvestment in grantee learning. This is especially true for partner organizations and movements whose leadership come from and serve Black, Indigenous, and communities of color who have not only received fewer and a disproportionately smaller share of philanthropic grants, but many of whom have also not had the benefit of philanthropic resources for building self-directed systems for learning and evaluation.
What does this engagement look like in practice? Here are a few examples:
- Fund for Shared Insight, a national funder collaborative, seeks to improve philanthropy by promoting high-quality listening and feedback in service of equity. It supports both organization- and field-level efforts to create more meaningful connections between foundations, nonprofits, and the people and communities most harmed by structural racism and other systemic inequities whose insights should help drive philanthropic decision-making.
- Evaluation and learning are effective only when translated into insight and action; having a strong learning culture is key. Recognizing that building a strong learning culture takes skill, effort, and time, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund is supporting the development of resources and tools to help funders and grantees strengthen learning cultures.
- Mastercard Foundation has collaborated with communities, educational institutions, and Indigenous post-secondary students in Canada through EleV to embrace evaluation methods that center indigenous storytelling and relationships. The evaluation approach is rooted in the local cultural context and existing community relationships with learning facilitators who collaborate to design a learning plan that is nimble, creative, values-based and locally relevant.
- Humanity United is engaged in a partnership with a network of creative and resilient young peacebuilders based in South Sudan centered on co-creation and co-learning. This emergent model focuses on network members collaboratively experimenting with approaches to needs in their community and integrating learning from collective experiences. Accompanying partners work with members to design and adapt fit-for-purpose learning approaches to the activities they are undertaking, focusing learning on the needs of the community rather than external donors. Donor learning focuses on how we are showing up in support of the community.
These are just a few ideas and examples in an area of vast opportunities for change. We invite grantees, foundation leaders, philanthropic effectiveness advocates, watchdogs, and the many learning and research partners like CEP to share more examples to advance our collective learning.
Without a more nuanced conversation that includes practical examples on what it will take to be more effective we will fail to tackle this century’s most intractable problems. In this way, we’ll move beyond removing grantee reporting requirement burdens to becoming true partners in learning. The following is a list of foundation evaluation and learning leaders who are committed to continuing this important conversation:
- Meredith Blair Pearlman, Evaluation and Learning Director, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
- Neeraj Mehta and, Director of Learning, McKnight Foundation
- Stephanie Duffy, Director of Grants and Program Operations, McKnight Foundation
- Hanh Cao Yu, Chief Learning Officer, The California Endowment
- Rachel Reichenbach, PhD, Senior Director, Strategy, Learning & Impact, Humanity United
- Yvonne Belanger, Director, Learning & Evaluation, Barr Foundation
- Veronica Olazabal, Chief Impact and Evaluation Officer, The BHP Foundation
- Matthew Carr, Director of Strategy, Learning, & Evaluation, Walton Family Foundation
- Johanna Morariu, Deputy Director, Strategy, Learning & Evaluation, Walton Family Foundation
- Jackie Williams Kaye, Chief Learning and Evaluation Officer, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund
- Bess Rothenberg, Senior Director, Office of Strategy and Learning, Ford Foundation
- Ted Chen, Director of Evaluation and Organizational Learning, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies
Meredith Blair Pearlman is evaluation and learning director at The David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Carolina De La Rosa Mateo is research coordinator with HACER (Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment Through Research).
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