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Wanted: Better Evaluation Practices for a Better Philanthropy – A New Introduction

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

Both philanthropic effectiveness and nonprofit management need the field of evaluation to make more progress in measuring the ways systems can be rejiggered and improved to create meaningful change.  

Our publication, “Wanted: Better Evaluation Practices for a Better Philanthropy,” published by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in its magazine, Responsive Philanthropy (Fall 2010) illuminates the challenges.  It shows how better evaluation practices are needed if we’re to learn how well philanthropy is delivering the goods.

Improving Philanthropic Effectiveness – An Introduction

Philanthropy by definition is a noble endeavor. Generous gifts of time, talent and treasure have no doubt improved the world in countless ways. Whether the motive is to provide immediate relief of suffering, to support people in their development or to change systems’ ground rules to improve outcomes for even more people, philanthropy enjoys visibility and growth.  And yet, people want to know what comes from their gifts. They want to know their gifts helped make the world a better place. Unfortunately there’s a big disconnect between the knowledge of results we crave, and the knowledge we get from formal evaluation inquiries.

Nonprofit organizations, the working on-the-ground partners of institutional philanthropy, want to use their time doing the work that their mission calls for, not fundraising.  Currently, nonprofits have to spend too much time scrabbling for funds, even in small amounts.  The typical practice of grantmaking involves making one grant at a time to one organization at a time for one project at a time for one year at a time.  This means the grantmaking process creates massive inefficiencies.  It also means that evaluation of grantmaking will also be inefficient in its learning agenda, no matter how well-intentioned. 

This may be a good way to keep order, but it doesn’t make for better philanthropy.  A cynic might say that grantmakers and those on their board don’t really want to see progress in society’s big issues, that they want to keep change at bay.  

Progress in resolving society’s bigger issues demands that foundation practice not be so fragmented.  In times like these, we need donors to innovate in the challenge of moving the needle, that is, in pushing and pulling to improve the performance of public and private systems. 

Improving Evaluation Practice – An Introduction

We won’t win any battles against poverty if the success of a program is measured as “numbers of people rising from poverty.”  We may want to see such a wonderful outcome, but nonprofits don’t have much control over the economy, or even the job market, and no single program will deliver or show such impact – our systems are too interconnected to allow us to see change at the output end of a single program. 

Bottom Line

Better evaluation practices are needed if we’re to learn how well philanthropy is delivering the goods. Both philanthropic effectiveness and nonprofit management need the field of evaluation to make more progress in measuring the ways systems can be rejiggered and improved to create meaningful change.  

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How to cite this cover article: Mayer, Steven E., Wanted: Better Evaluation Practices for a Better Philanthropy – A New Introduction.  Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com, [month, date, year]. 

The original publication, produced with support of the Ford Foundation, can be cited this way: Mayer, Steven E., Wanted: Better Evaluation Practices for a Better Philanthropy.  In Responsive Philanthropy, Fall 2010.