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How Can Leaders Help Their Organization Learn from Evaluation? 

A few days ago, I got together with a group of colleagues to dig into the new GEO report “Four Essentials for Evaluation.” The report presents recommendations for developing and strengthening organizations’ capacity to conduct learning oriented evaluations. As we were discussing the report, we all agreed that using evaluation as a tool for learning poses big challenges, even for organizations that are fully committed to learning. In order to truly use evaluation for learning, organizations need to understand that evaluation “is about improvement not just proof,” as highlighted in the GEO report. Organizations also need to integrate and embed evaluation into their everyday practices, processes, and systems to encourage and support continuous learning. So, how do they do it?

Our own experience working with successful learning organizations suggests that leaders can make a big difference in building the conditions for ongoing learning and improvement. Our conversation highlighted three key roles leaders can play in helping their organization maximize their learning from evaluation efforts:

1. Show a genuine commitment to evaluation

Leaders have a unique opportunity to communicate the importance of evaluation to both staff and partners and to show genuine committed to evaluation for learning. Jane Mosley, Chief Evaluation Officer with the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas, who is quoted in the GEO report, argues: “Unless evaluation and learning are made a priority and supported by organization leadership, they won’t be prioritized throughout the organization.” In my experience, foundation leaders effectively become evaluation champions when they embrace evaluation for learning in their day to day conversations with staff and grantees. When leaders start saying things such as, “Let’s plan to get together so we can learn more about this,” or “How can we get more information so that we can use the best data to inform this decision?” These conversations send a powerful message to the staff that shows leadership's real commitment to the use of evaluation for learning purposes.

2. Embrace failure

It is very important for organizations to learn from their mistakes and capture learnings that will help them achieve better results next time. Leaders are best positioned to create this culture where learning from what went wrong is accepted and encouraged. But this exercise is easier said than done “We’re in a field that fears failure. We feel that we always need to be the experts,” said Kathy Reich, Director of Organizational Effectiveness with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, in the GEO report. As my colleague, Katelyn Mack, recently wrote about in a blog post, “admitting failure is scary, but it’s often a necessary part of learning, adaptation, and improvement. Leaders need to model this behavior for staff by admitting their own mistakes and explaining how they’ve learned from them.”

3. Provide the resources necessary for learning

Leaders should create the infrastructure for learning that will help their organization become a true learning organization. This includes putting in place sufficient financial, personnel, and capacity building resources to carry out relevant, timely, and useful evaluations. The GEO report explains, “At many foundations, CEOs work with staff members who are charged with the human resources, communications or IT functions to build evaluation and learning into the formal structure of the organization.” I recognize that the philanthropic sector is facing a climate of reduced resources and asking to invest more on learning might not be an easy sell. But sometimes it is just a matter of being strategic with the resources available. Creating a Strategic Learning and Evaluation System, which is essentially, a strategy for evaluation, has helped our clients describe the evaluation resources they have available and to be more intentional about their learning and evaluation activities. If you want to learn more about strategic learning and evaluation systems, check out our strategic evaluation blogs.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that even though leaders are key, it takes commitment across the organization to ensure that evaluation enables learning. You can’t have a learning organization if the staff doesn’t see the benefit and impact of collecting information and using it to inform their work. I want to leave you with a video from a presentation I made during the last GEO conference in Seattle, WA. The presentation talks about my experience trying to make my father’s farm a learning organization and touches on this last point of engaging the whole organization in learning.

Watch Strategic Learning and Milking Cows

Please feel free to leave comments or questions, and thank you for reading!

Efraín Gutiérrez

Former Associate Director of Equity Partnerships, FSG