How Improved Evaluation Sharing Has the Potential to Strengthen a Foundation’s Work

Jennifer Glickman

This post originally appeared as part of the #OpenForGood series on Glasspockets’ “Transparency Talk” blog, in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new research and tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector.

Philanthropy is a complex, demanding field, and many foundations are limited in the amount of resources they can dedicate to obtaining and sharing knowledge about their practices. This makes it necessary to consider, then, in what areas should foundations focus their learning and sharing efforts to be #OpenForGood?

Last year, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) released two research reports exploring this question. The first, Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency, looks at foundation CEOs’ perspectives on what it means to be transparent, who the primary audiences are for foundations’ transparency efforts, and what is most important for foundations to share.

The second report, Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices, presents benchmarking data collected from senior foundation staff with evaluation responsibilities on topics such as evaluation staffing and structures, investment in evaluation work, and the usefulness of evaluation information. Together, these reports provide meaningful insights into how foundations can learn and share knowledge most effectively.

CEP’s research found that there are specific topics about which foundation CEOs believe being transparent could potentially increase their foundation’s ability to be effective. These areas include the foundation’s grantmaking processes, its goals and strategies, how it assesses its performance, and the foundation’s experiences with what has and has not worked in its efforts to achieve its programmatic goals. While foundation CEOs believe their foundations are doing well in sharing information about their grantmaking, goals, and strategies, they say their foundations are much less transparent about the lessons they learn through their work.

CEP Transparency Graphic

For example, nearly 70 percent of the CEOs CEP surveyed say being transparent about their foundation’s experiences with what has worked in its efforts to achieve its programmatic goals could increase effectiveness to a significant extent. In contrast, only 46 percent say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about these experiences. Even fewer, 31 percent, say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about what has not worked in their programmatic efforts, despite 60 percent believing that being transparent about this topic could potentially increase their effectiveness to a significant extent.

And yet, foundations want this information about lessons learned and think it is important. Three-quarters of foundation CEOs say they often seek out opportunities to learn from other foundations’ work, and is that it enables others to learn from foundation work more generally.

How is knowledge being shared then? According to our evaluation research, foundations are mostly sharing their programmatic knowledge internally. Over three-quarters of the evaluation staff who responded to our survey say evaluation findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the foundation’s CEO, and 66 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with foundation staff. In comparison:

  • Only 28 percent of respondents say evaluation findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the foundation’s grantees;
  • 17 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with other foundations; and
  • Only 14 percent say findings are shared quite a bit or a lot with the general public.

CEP Evaluation Survey Graphic

In fact, less than 10 percent of respondents say that disseminating evaluation findings externally is a top priority for their role.

But respondents do not think these numbers are adequate. Nearly three-quarters of respondents say their foundation invests too little in disseminating evaluation findings externally. Moreover, when CEP asked respondents what they hope will have changed for foundations in the collection and/or use of evaluation information in five years, one of the top three changes mentioned was that foundations will be more transparent about their evaluations and share what they are learning externally.

So, if foundation CEOs believe that being transparent about what their foundation is learning could increase its effectiveness, and foundation evaluation staff believe that foundations should be investing more in disseminating findings externally, what is holding foundations back from embracing an #OpenForGood approach?

CEP has a research study underway looking more deeply into what foundations know about what is and isn’t working in their practices and with whom they share that information, and will have new data to enrich the current conversations on transparency and evaluation in early 2018. In the meanwhile, take a moment to stop and consider what you might #OpenForGood.

Jennifer Glickman is manager, research, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @JenGlickman.

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