Network To Develop Ways to Evaluate Impact of Foundation Grants
DALLAS--Responding to the growing demand for more formal methods of gauging the impact of foundation grants, the Council on Foundations has established a new coalition dedicated to improving evaluation in philanthropy.
Nearly 140 foundation representatives have joined the Grantmakers Evaluation Network, which held its first meeting last week as part of the council's annual meeting here.
Foundation officials say such a group is needed to help insure that philanthropies make the most of their grant dollars.
"I think the fun is that [evaluation] peels back the pieces of the onion,'' said Janet Carter, the executive director of the New York City-based Bruner Foundation, which supports education and urban-improvement projects in addition to encouraging other foundations to strengthen their commitment to evaluation.
"One of the things evaluation can do is help [funders and their grantees] explore all the assumptions they have about a project,'' she added.
The evaluation network is the newest "affinity group'' to be set up through the council, a membership organization of more than 1,300 private, corporate, and community foundations and corporate-giving programs. The council's 29 affinity groups link up grantmakers who share an interest in a wide range of specific issues, including precollegiate education.
The new coalition was initiated through the council's research committee, which in recent years had received a growing number of inquiries from council members about how to conduct effective evaluations.
The need for meaningful evaluation is particularly important in tight financial times, several of the 50 people who attended last week's affinity-group meeting noted. Only by examining whether a project has accomplished its objectves can foundations determine whether the end results justified their financial investment, they said.
"Personally,'' said Raymond F. Reisler, the executive director of the Mark Taper Foundation in Los Angeles, "I can't imagine funding a program for a significant amount of money that doesn't have something built into it about how the organization is going to know if it met its goals.''
In addition to helping foundations figure out what return they get for their investment, some here said, formal evaluations can help grantees strengthen their own programs.
"Developing self-evaluation skills is also developing the capacity of that organization to build for the future,'' said Jacqueline Cox-New, the senior program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Little Rock, Ark.
Ms. Carter said the need for a more systematic approach to evaluation had been a topic of conversation at the council's annual meeting for a number of years. "You would begin to get some ideas, and then it would be time to leave,'' she said.
Now that the new affinity group is in place, Ms. Carter said she and some of her colleagues hope to publish a newsletter and to pair up foundation leaders experienced in designing and executing evaluations with their less-seasoned colleagues.
Ms. Carter said many foundations are particularly interested in how best to measure the impact of school-based programs. "I think there's so many different reform efforts in education, it makes it absolutely enthralling for evaluators,'' she said. "I think it's very unstable terrain--and that's good.''
On the other hand, she added, it is not unusual for some schoolpeople to perceive evaluation as part of a punitive process.
"Inner-city schools are very accustomed to being dumped on,'' she said. "They feel angry and mistreated, and then here comes someone from the outside who asks them to produce results that are unrealistic.''
For that reason, Ms. Carter said, it is important for foundations to involve schools in designing the evaluations.
New Book Released
Also last week, the council announced that it has published a book intended to serve as a primer on foundation evaluation.
Entitled Evaluation for Foundations: Concepts, Cases, Guidelines, and Resources, the book presents an overview of the different ways evaluations can be structured, a discussion of the purposes they can serve, and nine case studies.
The book includes two school-related case studies. One is the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation's evaluation of a $750,000 grant program for at-risk youths in 10 communities in Arkansas; the other is a joint evaluation by the Bruner Foundation and the Greenwich, Conn.-based Primerica Foundation of the New York City district's "Cities in Schools'' project.
Copies of the book are available for $39.95 each by calling the Council on Foundation's publications division in Washington at (202) 466-6512.