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Evaluation: it's about improvement, learning with others
By Katie Murray / July 6, 2017 /   Loading Disqus...
“Evaluation is one of those terms that can get a bad rap… it can easily become subsumed under a shroud of potential blame or a sense of failure.”

Thus began a Rhode Island Foundation blog post in 2015. And while there is still concern about evaluation resulting in a judgment of success or failure, the conversation has expanded to acknowledge the important role of evaluation to inform learning.

The idea is not new. In 2009 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and the Council on Foundations, leading organizations on best practices in philanthropy, jointly issued Evaluation in Philanthropy to reframe the conversation to one about learning:

Looking through the prism of learning offers a different view of evaluation. Rather than an accountability exercise, it becomes a powerful tool for improvement. It enhances the capacity of grantmakers and their grantees – as well as governments and communities – to understand and solve problems more effectively.

The publication also identified five key principles for evaluation:

  • It’s about improvement, not just proof
    Evaluation needs to go beyond tracking results for accountability purposes. It needs to be used by both grantees and grantmakers to inform changes for improvement.
  • It’s about contribution, not attribution
    The complex problems that grantmakers and grantees seek to change do not lend themselves to easy answers or judgments of success or failure. Evaluation can instead be used to learn about the numerous factors that contribute to progress.
  • It’s about learning with others, not alone
    Grantmakers need to look beyond using evaluation to measure progress on their own benchmarks. The process of evaluation is a way to support and learn from grantees to achieve shared goals for social change.
  • It’s about going beyond the individual grant
    While the progress of each grantee is important to understand, Foundation-level evaluation helps provide insight on bigger-picture such as strategies and operations supporting the mission.
  • It’s about accepting failure
    Every new strategy or approach can’t be a success, no matter how well it is vetted by grantmakers and partners. An approach to evaluation that accepts failure can then put a failed project to use by capturing lessons learned and ways to achieve better results in the future.

The Rhode Island Foundation has been committed to these principals since establishing an evaluation and learning department in 2014. In our own activities and with grantees we want evaluation to support ongoing learning, inform decision making, and enhance the effectiveness of services for Rhode Islanders. Evaluation can help us to be better at what we do and maximize the impact of every resource. 

So in practical terms what does this commitment to shared learning for improvement look like?

  1. We have just rolled out a revised grant application and reporting template for our strategic priority areas: Economic Security, Educational Success, and Healthy Lives. We hope these new tools will better allow us to support the work of our partners and to share what they are learning with other grantees, the community, and with our donors.
  2. Because application and reports are just one part of the process of learning, we will also create opportunities for community partners to be part of shared conversations that extend beyond the individual grant. For example, this spring we hosted a series of conversations that brought community organizations working in the strategic priority sectors together to share challenges, needs, and opportunities.
  3. We will also use this space as an opportunity to share learning. The next several posts will focus on knowledge that grantees are gaining in the field: their activities, successes and setbacks, tools and techniques. 

We recognize that understanding the impact of our work is difficult given the complex systems and ever-changing environment. This makes the shared agenda of learning ever more imperative, and we welcome your insights and questions. Please add your comments below.

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