I’ve worked my entire so-called adult life with quite a gamut of community, public and philanthropic organizations – grassroots groups, donors, foundations, agencies, associations, networks, and systems – intending to help them achieve greater effectiveness consistent with their mission.
In 1974, I started Rainbow Research, Inc., a nonprofit with a mission “to assist socially concerned organizations in responding more effectively to social problems.” About 25 years later I stepped down as Executive Director and left to create the Effective Communities Project, at a scale and level of effort more conducive to sanity, but with essentially the same mission.
How did I get into this?
I’ll spare you the details of early formative experiences and begin with my entrance, as a 24-year old, to the University of Minnesota’s doctoral program in “Industrial/Organizational Psychology.” There I learned – and enjoyed learning – a whole bunch of things considered arcane, technical and specialized: the measurement of individual differences; assessment of personality, intelligence, and attitudes; characteristics of successful organizations, the rules of inferential statistics that govern the practice of laboratory experimentation, how to calculate a correlation coefficient and take the inverse of a matrix by hand. Stuff like that. I taught the Introduction to Statistics class to psych majors, and wrote class papers on construct validation, nomological nets, and what was called “dust-bowl empiricism,” which will go down in history as a somewhat useful but way over-rated approach to gaining and deploying wisdom.
This got me an entry-level academic job at a major American university, where I quickly saw, to my great surprise, that academia wasn’t for me. Just then I discovered the book, Reforms as Experiments, by Donald T. Campbell. Well, I thought, I knew as much as anyone else with a Ph.D. on the challenges of conducting valid experiments, or searching for evidence in the so-called real world with anything resembling real vigor. And I cared as much as anyone who’d been on campus in the late 60s early 70s about the imperative of reform.
So I quit academia and moved back to Minnesota, which was then (and still is) being celebrated as a “good government” state alongside a tradition of sophisticated philanthropy, to put out my shingle and open shop as a “program evaluator.” In 1974 I opened a Dashiell Hammett-like office around the corner from the Rainbow Café and called my enterprise Rainbow Research, thinking the name a useful counterpoint to my neighbor, the imposing Control Data, which was then riding high. BTW, Control Data proved unsustainable and is long out of business, and Rainbow Research is still rocking the nonprofit and public-sector evaluation scene, led now by only its third Executive Director in 44 years.
Early projects included evaluating a corporation-based sensitivity training program; evaluating the Tillman Seminars in White Racism; designing an evaluation for the leading Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis and serving as coordinator for evaluation for the State’s Alcohol and Drug Authority, doing demonstration projects around the state that collected data about outcomes-from-service from people who’d actually experienced that service. This was denounced as a form of heresy, and I learned a lot about working with bureaucracies and programs in the wild.
In 1976 I went to the founding meetinga of the Evaluation Research Society, along with a few dozen other people. This organization merged in 1986 with the Evaluation Network to become the American Evaluation Association, which today has 7300 members in 80 countries around the world. When I was coming up, there were no degree-granting programs in Evaluation, and there were courses in only a few universities; now there are dozens.
In 1982 I was hired by the Council on Foundations to conduct its first-ever continuing education program, a two-day course in “Post-Grant Evaluation,” which introduced me to the world of institutional philanthropy. That led to a gig with The Minneapolis Foundation to evaluate its “Neighborhood Self-Help Initiative Program,” which led to a multi-year effort with the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to evaluate its “Community Foundations and Low-Income Neighborhoods” effort, which led to a multi-year effort to evaluate the Ford (and later MacArthur) Foundation’s “Leadership Program for Community Foundations,” which led to an evaluation of Lilly Endowment’s “Religious Institutions as Partners in Community Development,” and an opportunity to help redesign the W.K. Kellogg’s evaluation protocols. By this time, there were ten of us at Rainbow Research, conducting many other evaluation projects simultaneously in teams of two-three.
Exhausted, I left Rainbow at the end of 1997. I wandered the earth for a while, then returned to Minneapolis to start the Effective Communities Project with a mission similar to Rainbow’s. With my partner Susan Doherty, we did lots of projects, smaller in scale and more local. But then came another huge opportunity, to evaluate the Ford Foundation’s portfolio of grants called “Community Philanthropy and Racial Equity in the American South,” with several essential allies. It was the gig of a lifetime, sort of a career capstone project.
Then came another interesting opportunity, to design and teach a course on “Nonprofit Program Development and Evaluation” for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Academic Programs. It’s an on-line course, for 15-30 students, all excellent and interesting mid-career people. Since I designed the course, it’s different from most. In the first half we learn how to dissect the workings of a nonprofit, focusing especially on how it’s designed (or not) to deliver intended benefits to intended beneficiaries. In the second half we design an inquiry to learn how well it’s doing with those intentions. I’m thinking there’s a book in it.
So here I am, or was a few months ago, with boxes of publications and their support papers, knowing they’re even more useful now than the day they were first produced, and wondering what to do with them. The possibilities of the Internet saved me, and this website was born. A digital archive would not be enough – I want to teach. Chances are, you belong to one of the four intended audiences of this site — evaluators, grantmakers, activists, nonprofits — and so I’m hoping you and your colleagues will absorb what you can, and save the world.