More than 75 people met Sunday during the Council’s annual conference to discuss the intersection of strategy and evaluation. When asked, the majority stated that they engage in evaluation and strategic learning through various methods, including grantee-level interim/final reports and initiative-level evaluations. The group also stated that they use evaluation findings to inform their strategies.
Interestingly, this runs counter to a study of foundation leaders conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (2009). The Center’s report, “Essentials of Foundation Strategy,” found that only 26 percent of survey respondents used performance indicators to assess their foundation strategies. And only 8 percent were able to “describe specific types of information” that led them to believe they were achieving their goals.
The panelists, Hallie Preskill (FSG), Mayur Patel (Knight Foundation), and Charles Gasper (Missouri Foundation for Health), suggested that a foundation’s strategy should inform what gets evaluated when, how, and with what resources and that evaluation findings should guide the refinement of the organization’s strategies. They urged participants to consider moving up the continuum of evaluation and learning, from grantee interim/final reports that inform program-level decision making, to intentional and systematic evaluation that informs the organization’s strategy by producing relevant, credible, and useful information for decision making and action. They cautioned not to abandon grantee- or program-level evaluations but to expand evaluation repertoire to include strategy-level evaluations.
Critical to success is determining the questions that are important to the organization’s strategy and supporting those questions with evaluation activities that span the organization’s portfolio. Ultimately, evaluation has the potential to inform what parts of the strategy to evaluate while strategy informs where to focus evaluation resources. These two activities are mutually reinforcing and critical to understanding the progress and outcomes the foundation is striving to achieve.
Strategic evaluation requires an organization’s commitment to:
While it is clear that organizations are interested in the intersection of strategy and evaluation, they need to proactively discuss how to help foundation staff and boards think about, plan for, and engage in strategic evaluations.
Hallie Preskill is executive director, strategic learning and evaluation center, FSG; Mayur Patel is director of strategic assessment and impact, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; and Charles Gasper is director of evaluation, the Missouri Foundation for Health.