Caroline Fiennes and Ken Berger’s opinion piece in the March issue raises important points about the value of independent specialists, feedback from beneficiaries and systemic reviews. I’ve seen firsthand the value of independent assessments, both as an evaluator who provided such assessments to non-profits and foundations and now, in my role at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where we benefit from external, third-party independent evaluation for many of the reasons cited in the article.
Independent reviews help us check our assumptions and avoid confirmation bias. We use the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report to provide us with representative, unbiased, confidential and comparative data on how grantees see us. We also support funders and non-profits getting feedback from beneficiaries via the Fund for Shared Insight.
‘Using independent specialists doesn’t mean non-profits should abandon internal data. There are benefits to having both for non-profits as well as foundations.’
But using independent specialists doesn’t mean non-profits should abandon internal data. There are benefits to having both for non-profits as well as foundations. In-house expertise ensures that external specialists are asking the right questions to evaluate work and correctly scrutinizing the effectiveness of programmes. Coupled with checks of data reliability by external specialists, in-house data collection can produce greater reliability by leveraging staff’s familiarity with a programme. Such a complementary approach is more likely to result in findings being used for continuous improvement and, ultimately, for stronger and sustained impact.
We try to hold ourselves to this balance at Hewlett. We have internal expertise and systems to collect data and track progress. At the same time, we engage external evaluators for independent assessments to help us understand why and how change may be occurring, as well as when we are falling short. In short, one is not a substitute for the other. We need both.
Evaluation officer, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
On the same topic: ‘Taking a pragmatic view of impact assessment’ by Pieter Stemerding