Wanted: Better Evaluation Practices for a Better Philanthropy

Philanthropy by definition is a noble endeavor.  Yet people want to know, “what good does philanthropy do?”  The answer is hard to get, partly because philanthropy doesn’t really want to know, and evaluation doesn’t really know how to serve up good answers.  This article illuminates the dilemma and points to some lessons.

For Grantmakers: The typical practice of grantmaking – making one grant at a time to one organization at a time for one project at a time for one year at a time – is a good way to keep order, but a poor way to support progress on the bigger issues. It keeps grantees’ efforts fragmented.

For Nonprofits: Rather than having nonprofits compete for small grants, incentives should be created by donors to have nonprofits cooperate, with large grants, in the challenge of pushing together against a chosen system indicator or “needle.”

For Activists: We won’t win any battles against poverty if success is measured only by just one person’s rise from poverty at a time – it also has to be measured by progress against system change. Activism in philanthropic communities is needed to promote a larger system view of change that can be embraced by more donors.

For Evaluators: The field of evaluation needs more progress in “measuring” system change.  This article is full of implications.

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Originally appeared: In “Responsive Philanthropy,” published by National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy.

Number of pages: 3

Original date: Fall 2010

Author: Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D.

Effective Communities Project
Minneapolis, MN