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“Programmatic” Evidence of a Paradigm Shift in Evaluation

GEO’s National Conference kicks off this week and a quick peek at the program makes my heart beat joyously. The theme of the conference is Smarter Grantmaking | Stronger Nonprofits | Better Results. This is what the intersection of strategy and evaluation is all about of course. Naturally, there are several sessions dedicated to the topic of “evaluation.” The joy in my heart comes from how these sessions are framed.

You see, all sessions in the area of evaluation are framed to be about “Evaluation and Learning”. Specifically to “help grantmakers and their partners better use evaluation to foster learning and make real-time improvements in their work.” Foster learning. Real-time improvements. Music to my ears.

33. Number of times “evaluation” appears in the program. 42. Number of times “learning” appears in the program. 12. The number of times “improve” shows up. 3. The number of times “prove” shows up. Granted, this is not a very scientific analysis of the program – but directionally it is clear that evaluation is not framed as a practice that grantmakers should pursue to “prove” something or to pinpoint and quantify specific impact, or to impose on grantees. But rather, to learn and improve.

Specifically, I wish I could be a fly on the wall at the following sessions:

  • Building Capacity for Evaluation and Learning (featuring Innovation Network): High-performing nonprofit organizations seek and use data and feedback to continually assess and improve their work. And, behind these efforts are supportive grantmakers who embrace the role they can play in helping grantees make effective use of information.
  • Learning in Public (designed by and featuring the The David and Lucile Packard Foundation): Foundations spend millions of dollars each year on evaluation and learning activities, yet they rarely make evaluation results public. And often foundations make decisions based on these results without consulting key stakeholders or asking for their help in interpreting evaluation findings. There is an alternate approach emerging: sharing what an organization learns while it is in the process of learning — “learning in public.”
  • Practical Evaluation in Complex Communities (designed by and featuring Jessica Bearman): During this lively session, speakers and participants will explore the top challenges inherent in evaluating place-based grantmaking — and discuss practical strategies that have worked to engage communities and colleagues, share data and results and embrace the complexity of real world efforts.
  • The Hard Truth About Strategic Learning in Five Minutes (designed by and featuring the Center for Evaluation Innovation): Many foundations are trying to incorporate strategic learning into their grantmaking strategies, particularly strategic philanthropists who recognize that complex problems require dynamic and transformative solutions. Strategic learning promises that lessons that emerge from evaluation and other data sources will be timely, actionable, and forward-looking, and that strategists will gain insights that help them make their next move in a way that increases their likelihood of success.
  • Reinventing Evaluation for Social Innovation and Change (designed by and featuring our very own Hallie Preskill): It seems funders are still struggling to find an evaluation approach that is well suited for social innovation in complex environments. In this session, participants will engage in learning, reflection and dialogue about “developmental evaluation,” the experiences of grantmakers who are implementing the approach in their work and the ways in which it could add value to their current evaluation portfolio.
  • Leadership and Learning: Two Sides of the Same Coin (designed by and featuring Fourth Quadrant Partners): Being a learning organization is not easy, but it does not need to be as complicated as we make it. We make learning complicated by seeing it as something separate or something that takes precious time away from the task at hand. By adopting a set of tools and a philosophy about leading, we can strengthen our supervision, leadership, learning and self-evaluation abilities as well.

Can’t wait to hear the blogosphere light up in the coming days as attendees engage in these exciting sessions!

Valerie Bockstette

Former Managing Director, FSG