Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Benchmarking Evaluation in Foundations: Do We Know What We Are Doing?

Academic journal article The Foundation Review

Benchmarking Evaluation in Foundations: Do We Know What We Are Doing?

Article excerpt

Keywords: Evaluation, philanthropy, foundations, evaluation in philanthropy, evaluation in foundations, benchmarking, benchmarking research, Evaluation Roundtable, foundation evaluation directors, learning, strategic learning, performance management, organizational learning, knowledge management, Center for Evaluation Innovation


Much like the discipline of evaluation itself, the evaluation function in philanthropy -with staff assigned to evaluation-related responsibilities - is a fairly recent phenomenon in the United States. Its roots trace back only to the 1970s, when pioneers like the Robert Wood Johnson, Ford, and Russell Sage foundations began making serious commitments to evaluation (Hall, 2004).

Forty years ago, evaluation in philanthropy looked much different than it does today. At the time, less than two percent of foundations had professional staff, making evaluation mostly a larger foundation concern. For those few foundations making concerted evaluation investments, the focus was on assessing individual grants, often as grants were closing.

As philanthropy has evolved in the decades since, so has evaluation in philanthropy. When the 1990s brought a huge increase in the number of foundations, interest in evaluation surged (Patrizi & McMullan, 1999). Factors credited include more donors and trustees coming to philanthropy with a results orientation, the professionalization of nonprofit management and incorporation of a business orientation, an increase in the diversity of methods and tools available for evaluating different types of grants, and high-profile and generous foundation champions for evaluation (Hall, 2004). Similarly, evaluation received a boost in the last decade with the rise of strategic philanthropy, in which foundations seek to achieve their own clearly defined goals, pursue those goals in collaboration with grantees, and then track their success in achieving them (Brest, 2012; Patrizi & Thompson, 2011). Evaluation in foundations has again expanded as new methods and tools have been introduced for evaluating increasingly longterm and adaptive foundation strategies where traditional program evaluation approaches are not a good fit (Britt & Coffman, 2012; Preskill & Beer, 2012).

The one thing that has not changed over the last four decades, however, is a regular questioning of what foundations are doing on evaluation, especially since the world of philanthropy regularly shifts, and changes in evaluation resourcing and positioning tend to follow. In addition to questions about what foundations are doing, questions arise regularly about whether foundation evaluation investments - where they exist - are as useful as they can be, and if not, how to improve them. This has been true since the president of the Russell Sage Foundation wrote a 1973 essay on this topic, "Do We Know What We Are Doing?" (Heimann, 1973). As the title of this article suggests, that overarching question still dominates discussions about this topic.

This article presents new findings about what foundations are doing on evaluation and discusses their implications. It is based on 2012 research that benchmarks the positioning, resourcing, and function of evaluation in foundations. This study was conducted for the Evaluation Roundtable, a network of foundations seeking to improve how they learn about the results of their grantmaking and enhance the difference they make. The Center for Evaluation Innovation conducted the research and also leads the Evaluation Roundtable.

This is not a study about evaluation in all of philanthropy. As was the case decades ago, the hiring of professional staff dedicated primarily to evaluation-related activities is still something that mostly larger foundations do. As such, this is a study of primarily larger foundations and other foundations known for their commitment to evaluation. Most of the foundations that participated are among the 100 largest U. …

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