A View from the Outside: 4 Key Takeaways from the Evaluation Roundtable

Emergent Strategy. Constant Change, Equity, Community. Morality. These are some of the issues we tackled together at this year’s Evaluation Roundtable.

by Clare Nolan and Giannina Fehler-Cabral


Last week, we had the opportunity to attend the Evaluation Roundtable convening along with 150 colleagues working in the field of philanthropic evaluation in snow-covered Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Evaluation Roundtable is a network of foundation leaders from across the US and Canada working to improve evaluation and learning practice in philanthropy. The Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) coordinates this now 30-year-old network. Roundtable discussions have cultivated connections across peers, elevated field-wide issues and fostered the spread of new ideas.

This event represented a special opportunity to us. The seed for it was planted during discussions of the Funder & Evaluator Affinity Network, an effort co-led by Equal Measure and Engage R+D, which elevated the dearth of spaces for shared learning and professional development among foundation staff and their external evaluation partners. To date, Roundtable participation has been limited to foundation staff only. The inclusion of external evaluation consultants thus represented a departure from the norm and an opportunity to test the value of more inclusive conversations about advancing our shared field.

As individuals with a deep commitment to social change and significant experience working with philanthropy, we were excited to enter a space that enables deep discussion about the practice of evaluation in this context. Below we share four of our key takeaways from the Roundtable.

1. Change is a constant feature of philanthropy.

According to data shared by CEI, the philanthropic landscape is rife with transitions of all kinds—from executive leadership transitions to shifts in strategy and programs to organizational restructuring. Foundation evaluation staff must continually work to establish and maintain their credibility and influence in a complex and shifting environment. This context also poses challenges for external evaluators, who generally have limited visibility into these dynamics. Moreover, internal shifts in priorities can outpace the time that it takes to produce useful and credible evaluation findings, limiting the ability of evaluation to inform strategy.

2. Strategy can be a murky concept within philanthropy.

Evaluators are not necessarily trained or experienced in the theory and practice of strategy, and the same can be said about strategists and evaluation. Within foundations, there can be different definitions of strategy and levels at which the concept can be applied (foundation-wide, portfolio-level, strategies applied by program officers, etc.). As a result, it isn’t always clear—internally or externally---what people mean when they say “evaluation should inform strategy.” Evaluators can help to dispel some of this murkiness by developing greater facility with strategy concepts and facilitating conversations that clarify what this looks likes given many possible interpretations. Gaining this clarity can also inform how targeted research and stakeholder engagement, in addition to evaluation, can better inform strategy.

3. Elevating equity and community in the work requires intentionality.

Internal foundation dynamics can create a gravitational-like pull away from the very people philanthropic investments are intended to serve. Minimizing this dynamic requires an intentional focus on equity and centering communities in the work. Foundation staff and external consultants can partner together to figure out the best way to elevate these issues and what role each can play when it comes to navigating internal politics and personalities. Additionally, external evaluators can play an important role in deepening community engagement and strengthening capacity. Foundations should consider the scale and balance of foundation-centered evaluation vs. evaluative work that is more directly in support of community.

4. Changing the way we work, together.

To inform foundation strategy in more powerful ways, foundation staff members and evaluators need to change how we interact with one another. Both parties can do more to cultivate mutual trust and invite candid discussions about foundation operating realities that influence evaluation’s relevance to internal decision-making. Being more inclusive of grantees and communities in philanthropic evaluation offers another avenue for increasing relevance in ways that are even more transformative. Having more explicit discussions about the values and norms that guide, or should guide, philanthropic evaluation is also critical in our push for more equitable practices and outcomes in our work.

While those gathered at the Roundtable held a strong belief in the power of evaluation to advance social change, the closing discussion invited us to consider the history and ideologies of evaluation practice, and the extent to which current practice is unintentionally aligning and perpetuating a white-dominant frame. How might we reimagine our role, and critically examine our morals and professional ethics, in order to maximize philanthropy’s responsiveness to the social problems of today?

We appreciate CEI’s leadership and willingness to experiment with opening up its well-established Roundtable model to be more inclusive of consultants working in this space. We benefitted greatly from listening and learning with others. We see value in broadening these and other conversations to include those who value the role foundations play in supporting social change but choose to do their work “from the outside.”