I find it surprising that we are still talking about the role of evaluation at foundations. A quick Google search on “evaluation in foundations” brings up more than 125 million hits — numerous benchmarking reports, articles in scholarly and gray literature, links to foundations’ evaluation philosophies, guidelines for grantees, and so forth. It would seem clear that well into the 21st century, foundations know that evaluation is a worthwhile investment and invest accordingly.
Yet as Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices, the new report from CEP and CEI, makes evident, evaluation continues to be at times an under-utilized, under-prioritized, and even a misunderstood function at foundations. Evaluation staff are clearly busy — providing data and research to program staff, developing and refining grant strategies, and compiling metrics. But challenges remain, many of which are the very same challenges written about in the numerous reports and articles my internet search identified.
An overwhelming majority of survey respondents in the study reported struggling with having evaluations result in useful lessons for their various stakeholders, as well as struggling with being able to incorporate evaluation results and learnings into future work. Many respondents also believe program staff face challenges in understanding and knowing how to use evaluative information.
And at the same time, few foundations have a good understanding of the impact of their work. This disconnect in foundations between making an investment in data and information and knowing how and when to use it to alter and improve grantmaking is one of the reasons why we still need to be talking about the role of evaluation in foundations — and why this report provides useful information to begin discussions.
This report should also serve as a call to action for those of us who are foundation evaluation staff. We must encourage innovative evaluations for our foundations that provide timely learnings to program staff and grantees alike — and facilitate the process of sense-making from this information. We must make sure all our program staff understand the purpose of evaluation and how to use it. We must take a lead in encouraging a culture of inquiry, curiosity, and transparency within our organizations — cultural changes that are necessary before anyone can be expected to embrace evaluation.
And, perhaps most importantly, we must improve the way we disseminate the findings from the evaluations we fund. We must be honest about what works and what doesn’t work, and we must be open to discussions with grantees and other funders to understand the why.
Several years ago, the foundation I work for appointed a new CEO. When the previous one was saying goodbye, I expressed concern as to what might happen to the evaluation unit when she left. Her advice to me was to not let one day go by when others in the organization (particularly program staff) wonder what the evaluation unit does. Her parting words to me were, “make it so they can’t imagine doing their work without you.”
The journey to fully integrating evaluation into grantmaking is a long and sometimes difficult one. But it is only when grantmaking staff realize they can’t do their jobs without their evaluation colleagues that we will realize the true value of foundations’ investment in evaluation.
Nancy Baughman Csuti is the director of research, evaluation and strategic learning at The Colorado Trust. She is an advocate for asking, learning and evaluating in all that the foundation does, always seeking opportunities to push boundaries and make new mistakes. You can follow her on Twitter at @NancyCsuti.
Download Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices here.