Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Evaluation for Models and Adaptive Initiatives

Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Evaluation for Models and Adaptive Initiatives

Article excerpt

Keywords: Evaluation, model projects, innovation, developmental evaluation

During these lean economic times, foundations remain committed to evaluation as a supportive tool for achieving impact (Ross, 2009). Within the philanthropic community and elsewhere, however, there has been some debate about evaluation design, including which methods return the most rigorous, credible, and useful evidence about impact. Recently, agreement is growing around the idea that the strongest evaluation designs are situation specific. According to Buteau (2010), "any design should be selected because it is the best way to answer a particular question, and the question to be answered should be directly related to the stage of the organization or program being tested."

In addition to the purpose of the evaluation and the stage of the program, the nature of the program under consideration is key for determining appropriate evaluation approaches. As Rogers (2012, p. 5) notes, situational appropriateness "means choosing methods that suit the purpose of the evaluation, the types of evaluation questions being asked, the availability of resources, and the nature of the intervention - in particular whether it is standardized or adaptive, and whether interventions work pretty much the same everywhere and for everyone or are greatly affected by context." In this article we concentrate on how the nature of the intervention affects evaluation design. We outline a framework for selecting evaluation approaches for two types of grantmaking programs used to achieve farreaching impact: models and adaptive initiatives.

Models and Adaptive Initiatives: Two Powerful Engines for Social Change

Two important approaches for promoting social change underlie much of a foundation's grantmaking. Models provide replicable or semistandardized solutions for problems that can be addressed using similar methods and procedures. In contrast, adaptive initiatives are flexible programming strategies used to address problems that require unique, context-based solutions.

Models are packaged systems of activities and services that work together to produce impacts for individuals or communities. Before they are scaled, models usually go through a rigorous evaluation to prove that they are effective. Scaling then involves launching a program in other sites while continuing to test its effectiveness. That process may allow programs to be adapted for different contexts or populations, but adaptations generally do not venture too far from the original model.

No replicable best-practice solutions have yet been found for many of today's most pressing social and environmental challenges. These intractable problems are often characterized by multiple causes and involve many actors operating on numerous levels. To address such problems, foundations have adopted more flexible programming approaches and launched initiatives that continually adapt and evolve to achieve impact. In this article, we use the term adaptive initiatives to describe endeavors that monitor, respond to, and catalyze changes in dynamic operating environments. Unlike models, adaptive initiatives involve a process of continual discovery and adaptation, rather than the implementation of a predetermined plan. Thus a single adaptive initiative, such as an advocacy campaign, may contribute to systemwide impact through strategic deployment rather than through increased scale.

Both models and adaptive initiatives can be effective engines for social change, and most foundations fund both approaches. Social entrepreneurs and change agents use both approaches in their work, especially when working toward large-scale change. In addition, many organizations working with models partner with organizations that use adaptive initiatives in order to maximize overall impact.

Evaluation can be a powerful tool for making strategic decisions about both models and adaptive initiatives. Evaluation can help to distinguish true models from promising projects that are not yet ready or appropriate for scale-up; it can also help to ensure a model achieves the desired results across many contexts. …

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