Ties That Bind: A Values-Driven Approach to Evolving Evaluative Practice

Meg Long, Clare Nolan, Jara Dean-Coffey, and Julia Coffman

Foundations are grappling with how to address societal challenges deeply rooted in complex systems. At the same time, many foundations are trying to center equity in their work and to be more accountable to the communities they fund. They are doing all of this while aiming to be strategically nimble and able to adapt to what they learn about progress and impact.

As philanthropies try to find their way forward in these complicated endeavors, a growing number of new initiatives are seeking to transform philanthropic evaluation in ways that can better support them and the social change they are after. These initiatives emphasize more than just the traditional assessment of impact. They stress the role of evaluators as learning and thought partners who bring cross-sector perspectives and multi-disciplinary expertise to change efforts. They center learning and evaluation in the change process, as part of the strategy for reaching a desired end.

We represent three of these efforts.

Our field-building efforts are trying to transform learning and evaluation in philanthropy. Collectively, we are dedicated to evolving the practice of evaluation in philanthropy, but in our respective pursuits of this goal, we each use different lenses, activate different but complementary networks of practitioners and partners, and explore different approaches.

  • The Evaluation Roundtable, coordinated by the Center for Evaluation Innovation, is a network of foundation leaders that aims to improve evaluation and learning practice in philanthropy so that it has more transformative value.
  • The Equitable Evaluation Initiative is shifting the evaluation paradigm in the social sector so that evaluation becomes a tool for and of equity.
  • The Funder and Evaluator Affinity Network is a collective effort to transform how funders and evaluators collaborate, with the goal of deepening the impact of evaluation and learning on philanthropic practice.

We came together earlier this year to reflect on how our efforts intersect and can complement one another. We decided that approaching field change with a coordinated, aligned stance could lead to more significant progress than if our efforts proceeded on parallel but separate paths.

In our exploration, we reviewed different frameworks and theories of change for field building and sector change. While some of the steps we identified — developing shared identity and standards of practice, establishing a knowledge base, enlisting leadership and grassroots support, and pursuing support through policy, leadership, and funding — are vital, we noticed that these frameworks lacked a strong foundation of identified core values. Between our three efforts, however, we easily identified deeply held values on which we had built our efforts: equity, the value of different voices, collaboration, and imagination about new possibilities in our shared field.

We found alignment in this set of shared values.

The bedrock of our values turned out to be the for what of our work. What is the change we seek in the world through the use of evaluation and learning? We believe it is to promote equity and social justice and to illuminate and rectify systemic and structural inequality.

Shared agreement on the for what of our work also requires shared agreement on the how. We determined that our work is done best by advancing field cohesion — not competition. As we shape the future of philanthropic evaluation, we can be more powerful if we are in sync. In addition, we all must make space for different voices with a range of lived experiences rather than focus only on established influencers.

We now have a shared hypothesis about our field-building work.

Since we’re evaluators, we framed a hypothesis: if our field-building work is based in values, there is a greater likelihood that learning and evaluation will become a mechanism for advancing equity and social justice. We believe that embedding shared values in the for what and how will lead to results that get us closer to equity.

Rigor and excellence are core values in the sector. We also think that if we are explicit about the other values we hold as core, then the shared definitions of “rigorous” and “excellent” will evolve in ways that better align with and can strengthen the complex strategies in which foundations and their partners are engaged.

We want to explore more questions. Are the common values we discovered together — equity, the value of different voices, collaboration, and possibility — also shared by others across the field of philanthropic evaluation? Can these values help to build a shared identity, standards of practice, and other elements that will further advance the field? Can coordinating values-aligned efforts achieve more influence as we shape the future of evaluation in philanthropy?

Help us to test this hypothesis.

We want to put our hypothesis to the test, and that’s where you come in. Join us for our session at the 2019 American Evaluation Association Conference on Thursday, November 14 from 8:00-9:00 am and push us so that we can all collectively continue to push ourselves. Join us in asking and addressing provocative and necessary questions: What are the values that underpin your work, and where do they lead you? Do we agree that being values-based in our collective field building will lead to different and better results? What other values must be built into our work?

Meg Long is president of Equal Measure.

Clare Nolan is co-founder of Engage R+D.

Jara Dean-Coffey is founder and director of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative.

Julia Coffman is director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation.

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