Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Goal-Free Evaluation: An Orientation for Foundations' Evaluations

Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Goal-Free Evaluation: An Orientation for Foundations' Evaluations

Article excerpt

Keywords: Evaluate, evaluation, goal-free, goal, objective, foundation, philanthropy


Goal-free evaluation (GFE) is any evaluation in which the evaluator conducts the evaluation without particular knowledge of or reference to stated or predetermined goals and objectives. Goals are "broad statements of a program's purposes or expected outcomes, usually not specific enough to be measured and often concerning long-term rather than short-term expectations" (Weiss & Jacobs, 1988, p. 528), whereas objectives are "statements indicating the planned goals or outcomes of a program or intervention in specific and concrete terms" (Weiss & Jacobs, p. 533). The goal-free evaluator attempts to observe and measure all actual outcomes, effects, or impacts, intended or unintended, all without being cued to the program's intentions. As Popham (1974) analogizes, "As you can learn from any baseball pitcher who has set out in the first inning to pitch a shutout, the game's final score is the thing that counts, not good intentions" (p. 58).

Historically, virtually all foundation-supported evaluations have been focused on goal attainment because it seems intuitive for a foundation to ask, What is the program (or project/ intervention) that we fund proposing to do and, consequently, how do we as funders determine whether the program is doing what it says it is going to do? Many scholars of philanthropy (e.g., McNelis & Bickel, 1996; Zerounian, Shing, & Hanni, 2011) assume that program goals are inherently relevant and therefore an examination of goals and objectives automatically should be included in program evaluation (Schmitz & Schillo, 2005). This is evident in the vast literature on logic models and theories of change attempting to connect intended actions to intended outcomes (e.g., Bailin, 2003; Cheadle et al., 2003; Flynn & Hodgkinson, 2001; Frumkin, 2008; Gargani, 2013; Gibbons, 2012; Knowlton & Phillips, 2013; MacKinnon, Amott, & McGarvey, 2006; Organizational Research Services, 2004; W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2004).

In recent years, there has been a movement toward strategic philanthropy in which foundations select their own goals and activities to accomplish results (Coffman, Beer, Patrizi, & Thompson, 2013; Connolly, 2011). A result of this shift is the pitting of those who support measurement-heavy strategic philanthropy against supporters of a more humanisticfocused philanthropy, which often leads to contentious debates over which goals and associated outcome measures to use (Connolly, 2011). At the very least, GFE can mediate by helping to avoid arguments over which goals to choose. Besides, as Coffman et al. (2013) state in reference to evaluating a foundation's strategy:

One challenge is that strategy - with a clear goal and clear and sound theory of change - does not really exist at this level. It becomes too high-level or diffuse to fit together in a way that is more meaningful than just a broad categorization of activities and results. (p. 48)

Goal-free evaluation serves as a counter to evaluating solely according to goal achievement, yet before an evaluator can persuade funders and administrators to consider GFE, the evaluator must overcome two ubiquitous misconceptions: that GFE is simply a clever rhetorical tool and that it lacks a useable methodology. Both of these beliefs are contrary to the fact that the Consumers Union has been successfully conducting goal-free product evaluations for more than 75 years while Consumer Reports magazine editors rarely solicit the product manufacturers' goals during their evaluations. Hence, the purpose of this article is not to advocate for the use of GFE per se, but rather to introduce GFE to the philanthropic community, present the facts of GFE use in program evaluation, describe aspects of GFE methodology, and highlight some of its potential benefits to foundations.

The Implementation of GFE

Goal-free evaluation has been conducted in program evaluation both by design and by default in the more than 40 years since Scriven (1972) introduced it, yet several evaluators criticize GFE as pure rhetoric and imply that it lacks practical application (Irvine, 1979; Mathison, 2005). …

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