Four Years, 400 Leaders, For the Future: Reflections on the Funder & Evaluator Affinity Network

Clare Nolan and Meg Long

How can learning and evaluation help philanthropy address the challenges of our time?

The Funder & Evaluator Affinity Network (FEAN) was hatched on a sunny afternoon at a beer garden on downtown Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue. As two leaders of evaluation firms dedicated to working with social sector organizations to deepen their impact, we felt frustrated by commonly shared critiques regarding evaluation made by people working in philanthropy. These criticisms often ignored root causes of problems, such as the growing complexity of social change work, who holds purchasing power for evaluation and learning, and market dynamics that impede collaboration.

As we sat and talked, we began to imagine what a concerted and inclusive effort to address these issues might look like. We hypothesized that if funders and evaluation consultants could sit and learn side by side, working together to shift the conditions that get in the way of impactful learning, collectively we could make important progress on long-standing challenges in our field.

Four years later, funders and evaluators have come a long way together in this work. Through FEAN, more than 400 passionate and committed leaders have identified key practice challenges and developed innovative solutions. They have met, collaborated, and produced blogs, briefs, articles, and presentations together. FEAN members have also socialized, deepened relationships, created new connections and partnerships, and identified critical work still to be done. Members met in both good and challenging times to share ideas and support, including some very emotional FEAN coffee chats during the early days of the pandemic.

As FEAN sunsets this fall, we ask ourselves — so what? What impact has FEAN had on its members and the broader field? We recently surveyed members to obtain their perspectives on this question. A majority agree FEAN created space for funders and evaluators to highlight and engage with issues important to our field (72 percent), elevated the importance of equitable evaluation and grantmaking practices (64 percent), and increased motivation to participate in field-building efforts (53 percent). Open-ended comments provide insight into the significance of FEAN for both individual members and the broader field:

  • “FEAN has supported deeper relationships and trust with fellow evaluators and funders. It was an impact-driven space, a place where we showed up with our personal values and beliefs. It has been a really amazing experience, and I will miss it.”
  • “FEAN is part of a momentum that has gathered around evaluation in the service of equity and is as much a part of the energy as it has helped to shape it.”
  • “FEAN has helped to change the narrative about the role of evaluation in philanthropy in such a practical, action focused way. So many of the issues that have been bubbling under the surface for years were brought to the collective awareness of this group in a solutions-oriented, constructive way. I feel so much more connected to the philanthropic evaluation community and more hopeful about future directions for our field.”

As we conclude this work, we also ask ourselves — now what? What else is needed to ensure learning and evaluation supports philanthropy in addressing the challenges of our time? As founders of this effort, we offer four of our own reflections on what’s needed to drive even greater impact:

  1. Reconsider philanthropy-centered learning spaces. Knowledge infrastructure in our sector often caters to where the resources are, not where change is happening. The membership model that underlies many philanthropic support organizations often favors the needs of those with the ability to pay for evaluation and learning over those without the financial means but who could also benefit. There is much foundations can learn – not just from their peers, but also from their partners in social change, including evaluators, community advocates, and nonprofit leaders. We are excited by spaces like Edge Leadership which bring together diverse changemakers together to exchange insights and build new collaborations.
  2. Center problem-solving over performance. Highly curated convenings and conferences are common in philanthropy. Who can attend, who speaks, about what, and in what format is often heavily prescribed by the host organization. FEAN, on the other hand, was open to anyone who wanted to participate. Its convening approach emphasized inclusive engagement and collective problem-solving over presentations and panels. Many experienced this as a refreshing alternative to learning spaces where the performative nature of programming inhibits open dialogue. Participants were able to hear perspectives from all kinds of different people and found these conversations helpful for catalyzing new ideas and engaging in real-time problem-solving.
  3. Invest in new knowledge infrastructure around evaluation and learning. FEAN did not operate on the traditional paid membership model and was thus charged with raising operating funds from its supporters on an annual basis. This was a process that was both time-consuming and cumbersome. Funders should reconsider their structures and processes to better incentivize collaboration and knowledge exchange across funders and evaluators. This can be done in small ways, such as by hosting evaluation partner happy hours, supporting all-access learning circles related to evaluation lessons, supporting shared professional development outlets, or investing in open-access training and engagement modules. Funders should also consider investing directly in philanthropy-supporting membership organizations to open up programming to non-member organizations, as well as pooling funding across foundations to create knowledge infrastructure for people with limited ability to pay.
  4. Deepen relationships and embrace the messiness. We are living through what we hope is a time of tremendous change in the social sector. If you’ve been around for some time, there’s a good chance you are being asked to reconsider longstanding norms and ways of working. If you are new to the sector, you may be questioning the status quo and wondering why things are the way they are. Deepening our understanding of what has been accepted and what needs to change is critically important work. Shifting the sector will require deep intention and deliberate effort. This difficult and messy work must be rooted in relationships in order to take hold. The more inclusive and connected people are, the more grounded we are in trust and shared values, the greater the likelihood of significant and lasting change.

In closing, we’d like to share our gratitude for FEAN’s members, especially those who stepped up to provide critical leadership, partnership, and support at different phases in our journey. As a network, we have relied on and benefited from the active engagement of dozens of individuals, including our investors, partners, action team facilitators, and field change allies many of whose names can be found on our FEAN webpage. We especially appreciate Dr. Debra Joy Pérez who saw potential in this work at the seed stage and mobilized others to nurture and grow this effort.

Finally, just because FEAN is sunsetting doesn’t mean that the work is over. We are living in a time filled with tremendous challenge and tremendous possibility. People are asking hard and necessary questions about the role of evaluation and philanthropy and what it will take to achieve racial equity and justice. There is critically important work to be done, both individually and collectively. We look forward to what we hope will lead to a transformation in our world and our work, humbled by the care, the passion, and the collaboration we have witnessed among our FEAN colleagues these past four years.

Clare Nolan is co-founder of Engage R&D. She is a nationally recognized expert in social-sector learning, evaluation, and strategy. Follow Clare on Twitter at @claremnolan and Engage R&D at @EngageRD.

Meg Long is social change strategist and former president of Equal Measure. As a leader in the social sector, Meg has more than 25 years of evaluation, philanthropic strategy, program management, organizational development, and leadership experience. Follow Equal Measure on Twitter at @EqMeasure.

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