Everyone in philanthropy seems to be talking about how funding programs alone won’t solve big social problems. Many organizations are shifting from program investments to those that address the “ecosystem” of an issue. Yet, as strategies shift toward greater investment in ecosystem change, how an organization measures and evaluates its work has largely remained the same.
Omidyar Network is determined to buck that trend by taking a serious and deliberate approach to evaluating its “ecosystem investments.” Ecosystem investments are characterized by a focus on creating system-level change by influencing specific stakeholder groups such as policymakers, high net-worth individuals, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and others. The approaches associated with ecosystem investments—funding research, networks, convenings, advocacy—are already familiar to organizations engaged in social change.
FSG partnered with Omidyar Network to conduct research on the evaluation practices that enhance the assessment of ecosystem strategies. Through our research, we identified 5 notable practices that characterized exemplary evaluation of ecosystem investments:
- Articulating a best hypothesis for how change is expected to happen, including target audiences or actors, utilizing non-traditional methods such as system mapping to complement or replace theories of change
- Developing a focused set of learning questions based on key elements of the hypothesis for change and underlying assumptions that help identify evaluation priorities
- Intentionally identifying and tracking interim outcomes at the outset, rather than relying on measures of progress toward ultimate impacts or using outputs as proxies for longer term change
- Using methods that enable ongoing sensing (“information gathering”) from multiple perspectives to gather data on emerging intended and unintended outcomes
- Using the evaluation process and findings to build the adaptive capacity of practitioners to enable continuous learning and ongoing adaptation of ecosystem strategies
Evaluating Ecosystem Investments describes how and why organizations such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The Center for Investigative Reporting, advocacy organizations, and others have used these practices to enhance their measurement and evaluation work.
Omidyar Network has started incorporating some of these practices into its work. Teams have developed system maps for their portfolios, and are including hypotheses, assumptions, and interim outcomes in documentation related to its ecosystem investments. Omidyar Network is exploring how it can systematically incorporate a variety of information-gathering approaches related to the effects of its ecosystem investments, and use these activities to build capacity among its partners.
The report also synthesizes hundreds of outcomes and indicators from the advocacy, research, and network evaluation literature into a list of 5 spheres of influence that are the target of ecosystem investments. We hope that this list can become a useful starting point for anyone interested in measuring the outcomes associated with ecosystem change.