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Push for Accountability Influencing Need For Evaluating Grants

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New York

As accountability becomes a more prominent issue in education, foundation officers are increasingly watchful of where their philanthropic dollars go and how to measure their impact on school-based programs.

Approximately 70 foundation representatives attended a workshop sponsored by the Grantmakers Evaluation Network at the annual conference of the Council on Foundations here last week.

About 280 foundation officers have joined the network, which had its first formal meeting last spring at the council's conference in Dallas.

The evaluation network is one of the Council on Foundations' newest "affinity groups.'' Currently the council has 28 such subgroups of council members that share an interest in a particular issue, such as precollegiate education, the environment, or AIDS.

A significant portion of the evaluation network's members are grantmakers who fund education or youth programs. About two-thirds of its current members report an interest in youth or education issues, according to Janet Carter, the executive director of the Bruner Foundation and the chairwoman of the evaluation network for its first year.

One reason for the strong involvement of education funders, suggested Jackie Cox-New, the network's new chairwoman, is that "accountability ... has become a bigger issue in K-12 education in the last five to 10 years.''

Ms. Carter agreed. Referring to two prominent education reformers, she said: "The Ted Sizers or James Comers, years ago they were interested in getting across their ideas; they weren't talking accountability. Now they are.''

Learning To Evaluate

At the conference session on evaluation, participants sat in a circle listening to a mock foundation committee debate an evaluation proposal.

Committee members were portrayed by foundation trustees Steve Hilton of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and Susan Butler Blum of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation and the Joseph and Claire Flom Foundation; program officer Dianne Kangisser of the Robert Bowne Foundation; evaluators Jennifer Greene, an associate professor in the department of human-services studies at Cornell University, and Michael Holzman, the K-12 project director at the American Council of Learned Societies; and Gideon Rafel-Frankel, an 8th grader at the Crossroads School, a New York City public K-8 school.

The committee contemplated this scenario: The hypothetical Jennifer McNeil Family Fund, a mid-sized, Midwestern foundation has awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant to Healey House, a local youth organization, to continue and expand its program.

Committee members and the audience asked a range of questions: How much should the foundation spend on the evaluation? Who will have input on its design? How rigorous should it be? How would it be used? Who is to be the ultimate beneficiary of the evaluation--the foundation, the program, or both?

"Our goal should be to ... give our board enough information to decide whether to give more to Healey House or similar groups,'' Mr. Hilton said.

Others suggested that the committee also should consider how the evaluation could help Healey House as an organization.

Ms. Greene described the ideal evaluator as a "critical friend.'' She said the evaluator should not necessarily accept everything an agency is doing as good, but should allow the agency to be an active participant in the process "so they can learn from this and continue to improve their program.''

Gideon, the 8th grader on the panel, agreed. "I think the evaluation should help Healey House improve,'' he said. "Although it should benefit the foundation, it should [also] help Healey House to become a better place for the kids.''

Audience members questioned the absence of a staff member on the committee. While not seeking to denigrate the choice of a youth representative, they suggested that it was important to have the needs of an agency's staff represented.

Ultimately, in any situation, Ms. Green cautioned, evaluation often becomes "a value-laden, politicized, ideological activity. ... We cannot pretend it is anything but an activity that promotes certain kinds of interests and certain kinds of values.''

Because of the interest in the topic, the network plans to hold a national workshop in Philadelphia in the fall to serve as an introduction to philanthropic evaluation.

"Evaluation is coming into its own,'' said Ms. Cox-New, who is a senior education-program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Little Rock, Ark. "There's a lot more excitement around it.''

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