Evaluating evaluations: When should philanthropy evaluate (and when shouldn’t it?)


Rob Lloyd and Melanie Punton


Now more than ever, philanthropy wants to know the impact it is having and is investing in evaluation to understand this. A recent OECD survey of foundations working in international development found that close to 70 per cent now evaluate their work.

Surely this must be a good thing? The more investment there is in evaluation, the more we understand the most effective types of programmes and strategies, the more funding will go to what works, and the more impact philanthropy will have on people and planet.

However, the key assumption in this theory is that evaluations are used – that funders actually draw on the insights from the evaluations they commission to inform their decision-making.

Unfortunately, research suggests this isn’t always the case. In a recent survey of US foundations by the Center for Evaluation Innovation, 73 per cent of respondents said their biggest challenge was ensuring the evaluations they commission produce meaningful insights that inform decision-making.

This is worrying, because quite frankly, evaluations that aren’t used are a waste of time and money. What going on? Why aren’t evaluations having the impact on philanthropy we’d expect and hope for?

Based on Itad’s 39 years of experience conducting evaluations in philanthropy, we know that robust and credible evidence is vital, but it isn’t the decisive factor. The real determinants of whether an evaluation has impact are trust and empathy.

Why are trust and empathy important?

An evaluation can be an uncomfortable experience for a funder and its grantees. It may challenge beliefs around what is and what isn’t working. It may point to problems that have been swept under the carpet, question the design and delivery of activities, or recommend that certain grantees no longer receive funding. Unless emotions of vulnerability and defensiveness are actively managed, they can present serious barriers to an evaluation being used. Trust and empathy are key to lowering these barriers.

In the context of an evaluation, trust is about believing that the evaluation is going to be thorough and evidence-based and that the evaluation team have the interests of the funder and its grantees and what they are trying to achieve front and centre. A credible evaluation team and a sound methodology are essential. But our experience – supported by research conducted by IDInsight – suggests that a strong and trusting collaborative relationship is a more important driver of impact.

Empathy is a crucial ingredient in these relationships. Unless an evaluation team are able to walk in the shoes of the funder and its grantees and listen deeply, they will struggle to really understand what is going on, and to generate useful insights. This will prevent effective and trusting relationships developing. This echoes research by GEO suggesting that when philanthropy embraces empathy – through building a ‘firsthand, gut-level understanding of the work of grantees’ – this can support innovation and better results.

When trust and empathy are in place, defences are lowered, people start to be more open and reflective towards critical findings, and an evaluation can move from providing insights to informing action.

What are the implications for foundations?

There are three ways foundations can ensure evaluations have an impact through a solid foundation of trust and empathy.

  1. If you can’t dedicate the time to building relationships with the evaluation team, don’t commission an evaluation. Trust isn’t created in a vacuum, it happens through interaction. The evaluation team needs time and opportunities to understand a funder – its priorities, its challenges – and also needs time with the grantees to really understand their perspectives and operational realities. Likewise, a funder needs to get to know the evaluation team and feel confident in them. This requires staff in the funder to set aside time to engage with the team and ensure grantees can too.
  2. Adopt evaluation arrangements that support collaborative relationships to develop. When scoping an evaluation, think about how it can be structured to build relationships among evaluators, funder staff and grantees. Ideally, this will mean a longer-term partnership, allowing time for building mutual understanding. This might be through interim deliverables, an embedded process evaluation, or a developmental evaluation approach.
  3. When selecting evaluators, don’t just look at their technical credentials, explore how they are going to work. The soft skills of the evaluation team are as important as their technical expertise. Do they have humility, acknowledging what they don’t know? Are they inquisitive? Do they demonstrate the ability to build relationships and show empathy for the experiences and perspectives of others? Have they budgeted for the time required to do this essential relationship work? The cultural and geographical makeup of the team are also important. Does the team include people who can engage with grantees in their cultural contexts, and who have a deep understanding of their realities and constraints?

Evaluations can be powerful opportunities for change in funders and grantees. But they require time and commitment to foster the trust and empathetic relationships that support learning and reflective practice. This is ultimately what enables an evaluation to have impact. If a funder isn’t able to create these conditions, it’s probably better not to evaluate in the first place.

Rob Lloyd is Managing Partner and Melanie Punton is Head of the Knowledge Hub at Itad, a consulting company that supports governments, foundations and multilateral organisations, to use evidence and learning to improve their social impact.

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