Evaluation as a Learning Tool

Evaluation as a Learning Tool

Team analyzing data and graphs

In the current circumstances of today’s Northwest, with COVID-19 impacting communities and Black Lives Matter protests bringing long-overdue issues of equity to the forefront of the national psyche, evaluation of our work has never been more important. But meaningful evaluation isn’t just crunching numbers and statistics.

“It’s about going from measuring in dollars to measuring making a difference in a community.”

“It’s about going from measuring in dollars to measuring making a difference in a community,” said Mason Burley, director of research and community impact at the Innovia Foundation. Mason was one presenter — along with Tom Kelly, VP for evaluation and impact at the Hawai’i Community Foundation (HCF) — on Philanthropy Northwest’s June 29 webinar, Evaluation & Learning in Community Foundations.

Effective evaluation is contextual, Tom said to the attendees. It’s not simply social science and research. It’s about understanding what’s important to partners, donors and communities, and asking the right questions to measure benchmarks, achievements and performance.

“Then, it’s about translating what we learned into what we should do next,” Tom said. “And are we aligning not just with goals, but with our mission and values? At the same time, community foundations engaging in meaningful evaluations have to be ready to ask hard questions and face any bad news or mixed findings learned in the process.”

Mason and Tom laid out some of the reasons why community foundations should be engaging in evaluation:

  • Foundations and nonprofits have an obligation to be accountable for the impact and results of our work and report results to donors and communities.
  • Evaluation is an important tool for learning and adapting to achieve positive social change.
  • Assessing root causes of inequity and measuring progress in closing racial gaps in results are critical steps in working towards equity.

Tom used Hawai’i Community Foundation’s evaluation around the response to COVID-19 as an illustrative example. HCF identified the desired results of relief fund efforts around Phase 1 of Risk Reduction and Readiness (reduce risk of infection among vulnerable groups and support the health care system to flatten the curve) and Phase 2 of Rapid Relief & Response (reduce hunger, prevent homelessness, decrease the stress and negative mental health effects among vulnerable populations).

Then, they measured what difference HCF made over the last three months. “We asked tailored questions,” Tom said. “How effective was HCF in funding grants that produced results in those areas, how well did nonprofits contribute, how well did we engage with donors? The goal is to get us to improve going forward, applying what we learned in Phase 1 and 2 that can be effective in planning for Phase 3 of recovery and resilience.”

The presenters acknowledged that when it comes to equity, evaluation is still at an early stage. But because so many foundations are new to thinking about evaluation, now is the time to incorporate equity into the process. Tom pointed to the Equitable Evaluation Initiative as a resource, which states that evaluation should be in service of equity, and can and should answer questions about the drivers of inequity, historical structural inequalities and racism, and ways in which cultural context are entangled in programs and work. Philanthropy Northwest aims to dive more deeply into this topic in the coming months. For more on our commitment to this, read our CEO Kiran Ahuja’s piece on Building an Anti-Racist Future.

“Whidbey Community Foundation was founded in 2016, so we’re still a forming organization,” said Program Manager Jesse Gunn, who attended the webinar on behalf of Whidbey Community Foundation. “Developing an evaluation muscle early in our growth ensures our ability to better serve our communities and our donors on Whidbey. Being a part of the Philanthropy Northwest Regional Community Foundation Network has been integral to this progress — tapping into the experience and expertise of our neighboring community foundations. Additionally, the training opportunities, including the Evaluation as a Learning Tool webinar, offered by the Network and PNW help inform our developing policies and procedures.”

“I appreciated my community foundation colleagues Scott and Mason taking the time to share their thinking and wisdom about equitable evaluation,” added Mindie Reule, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound. “It was relevant even for a small organization like mine and timely with the examples they used about evaluating their COVID-19 response funds.”

Visit our Regional CF Network home page to learn more about the benefits of joining the network or contact Maddy Metzger-Utt with questions.