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Toward a Trust-Based Framework for Learning and Evaluation

Date: March 30, 2023

Chera Reid

Co-Executive Director, Center for Evaluation Innovation

Shaady Salehi

Executive Director, Trust-Based Philanthropy Project

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This blog post is a follow-up to the January 25, 2022 webinar co-hosted by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project and the Center for Evaluation Innovation and was first published as a resource on the Center for Evaluation Innovation website and on the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project blog. 

In January 2022, more than 500 people across philanthropy joined us for a webinar exploring the question, “What does a more equitable and trust-based approach to learning and evaluation look like?” While we were blown away by the overwhelming level of interest, this also affirmed something we were hearing from more and more funders: philanthropy’s approach to learning and evaluation must change.

Industry standard, funder-driven evaluation tends to take a top-down, extractive approach to gathering and analyzing data, focusing on quantitative metrics and project-specific, short-term outcomes. In this context, measuring impact in a narrowly defined, time-delimited way is what matters. Learning is limited to what is readily available to be discreetly measured.

This approach often accompanies well-intentioned strategic philanthropy, where funders define the challenge and name parameters for desired solutions. In this approach, funders only see a small piece of the puzzle. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to understand and therefore better support the full picture of change organizations and communities are working toward, and the obstacles they face in getting there.

What if we reimagined evaluation as an opportunity for funders to learn and evolve as stewards, rather than taking on the narrow – and virtually impossible – task of proving that limited grants make a measurable impact on longstanding, complex social issues?

When learning and evaluation takes on a more expansive view, it invites adaptability, complexity, and long-term thinking about what moving to equitable institutions and systems requires. We can find our way to liberatory practices, those that allow for space to learn and be curious with grantee partners about what it’s going to really take to make progress on key issues. Funders can learn with, not simply from, their grantee partners.

A sector-wide practice around how to do this trust-based approach to learning and evaluation has begun to emerge. There are three learning areas that anchor this emergent work (download the one-page PDF to get a summary of all three):

1. Learning for Accountability.

This learning frame is focused on the aspect of work where funders have the most control: how they show up in their grantee relationships. This frame answers the question, “How (well) are we living our values?” and helps hold funders accountable to their grantee partners and one another. Learning for accountability helps funders understand their work as a partnership, examining the return on relationship (ROR) rather than return on investment (ROI). It is an ongoing exercise practiced in formal and informal ways, including these possible steps funders can take:

  • Conduct an anonymous survey with grantee partners to assess if they feel trusted, and whether or not they are getting the support they need from you as a funder (i.e., solicit and act on feedback).
  • Record Zoom meetings with grantee partners and invite a learning evaluation partner to listen for evidence of trust, accountability, humility, curiosity, and related aspects of a trust-based ethos.
  • Invite grantees to give anonymous feedback on

2. Learning for Decision-Making

This learning frame helps funders answer the question, “How (well) are we supporting our partners in meeting their goals?” and invites grantmakers to consider how they can shape, evolve, and refine their grant decisions in order to support grantees in advancing their intended impact. This learning frame helps funders shift their role to focus on catalyzing and scaffolding a strong and healthy ecosystem of nonprofit organizations working toward shared goals that they self-determine. There are a number of ways for funders to build in this kind of learning into their grant processes:

  • Invite grantee partners to define their own success, and use that as a springboard for your check-in conversations.
  • Get curious about what grantees think needs to get done, how it can be done, and what they need to get there.
  • Make space for grantees to share what’s working and what’s not working–and consider how you can use your positionality to help alleviate barriers to their work (i.e., support beyond the check).
  • Remind yourself that data and ways of knowing are expansive.

3. Learning for Long Term Impact

This learning frame tends to satisfy the most common question that funders consider when thinking about evaluation: Is our funding moving the meter on a particular issue or community? The difference in a trust-based context is that we shift the inquiry away from specific one-off grants toward a longer-term view that takes into account a more realistic understanding of how change happens. There are a few key considerations to better understand long-term impact:

  • Invite grantee partners and others directly impacted by the issues you care about to inform the indicators of success and the outcome you hope to measure. Create a community-informed theory of change that feels realistic to those who are working on the issues.
  • Take a long view. Assess change over 5-10 years rather than year to year.
  • Be careful about not attributing change–or lack thereof–to specific grants or grantees. This approach requires a realistic understanding of the complexity of social change and the myriad factors that influence the bigger picture.
  • Invite grantee partners to help interpret the data and inform how it affects your grantmaking strategy.

There are many steps funders are taking to rethink and rebuild past, harmful practices to learning and evaluation. These shifts (include but) are not just about reports and applications: at the end of the day, the values that funders bring to this work — and whether they are rooting relationships in trust and equity — will impact what grantee partners are able to accomplish. Looking ahead, we hope many funders will join us in building a more trust-based and equitable approach to learning and evaluation across the sector.

To learn more about how philanthropy can transform its knowledge paradigm, we invite you to explore the Equitable Evaluation Initiatives’ (EEI) Equitable Evaluation Framework ™. EEI’s mission is to grow a sustainable field of leaders who will reimagine the purpose and practice of evaluation; advancing equity and expanding notions of objectivity, validity, and rigor while still embracing complexity.

Chera Reid, Ph.D. is co-executive director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation. Find her on LinkedIn and follow the Center for Evaluation Innovation on Twitter and on LinkedIn. Shaady Salehi is executive director of the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. Find her on Twitter at @shaadys and follow the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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