Reporting from the Council on Foundations: thoughts on evidence-based decision-making


Timothy Ogden


Tim Ogden

Tim Ogden

I’ve been in Denver for a few days at the Council on Foundations annual conference. I’ve been unable to post updates as I did at the Global Philanthropy Forum because the technology infrastructure available here is, frankly, terrible. There is no wireless anywhere in the conference venues, leaving me with only my phone to access the wider world. That has been limited by the fact that it’s virtually impossible to find an available power outlet, so even use of the phone has to be rationed. While this may sound like whining (and it is at least in part whining), I think it also reflects on the state of the Council on Foundations. There have been several sessions on technology and social innovation here at the conference, and yet no one seems to have taken into consideration network access for conference participants. The conference itself is immeasurably poorer because it has cut off the significant conversations that happen via social media at most conferences these days.

With that said, some brief thoughts, which I hope to follow up with more detailed posts over the next few weeks.

→ Last week, I was very discouraged at the Global Philanthropy Forum during the conversation about metrics and measurement. During the session there it was obvious to me that a majority of the attendees didn’t understand measurement, what it was capable of and how it could be used. Here at the Council on Foundations I have been somewhat re-energized on this question, most specifically by Paul Carttar, the newly appointed head of the Obama Administration’s Social Innovation Fund (SIF).

It’s very obvious that Paul understands measurement much more than many in the sector do, and he characterizes the SIF as a catalyst for the development of more and more reliable evidence. At the same time, he is careful to note that evidence is not a binary question: ‘no evidence’ and ‘proven’ are not the only categories. Evidence, in Paul’s phrase, is a ‘dynamic continuum’ – a much more helpful way of looking at the field. Given that the best evidence is going to be available only in limited contexts for a long time, an understanding of progressing along a continuum towards better and more reliable evidence is the frame that I believe the sector needs to adopt. At the same time, it needs to understand that much of what has passed for data in the sector is simply not evidence, and is not on the continuum at all. This is data that is selectively gathered, filtered in reporting, and subject to all sorts of biases in its handling and dissemination. If the SIF can take the sector a few steps forward in the understanding of measurement and evidence, than it will be $50 million well spent.

→ Following up on that point, the other place I have been encouraged is seeing some real examples of evidence and data being used to guide decision-makers in education. The American educational system’s crisis seems to have woken up a core group of funders and non-profits that shooting in the dark based on hunches and good intentions is no longer good enough. In two separate presentations, school districts presented astounding gains over the last five years – gains based on bringing the group of interested parties together around data about school performance, college performance, teacher performance and identifying exactly where the system was working and where it wasn’t and bringing the best practices from the working areas to the broken areas. More to come on this point in future posts. It occurs to me that the education sector could be the ‘gateway drug’ for philanthropy as a whole to recognize the power of decision-making and funding based on evidence.

→ On the downside, there is some disappointment at a lack of questioning assumptions. I’ve stuck mostly to the education presentations because I was intrigued by the use of data that these sessions promised. In the sessions, while impressed by the data being gathered and used, I also was quite surprised that everyone seemed to take for granted that the goal was to get more students into and graduating from college. Everyone was very alarmed at statistics presented about American college graduation rates. What no one brought up is that the cost of a college education has risen dramatically in the last 20 years – and, more importantly, the returns to a college education have fallen significantly. In some sense American teenagers are reacting quite rationally and rejecting a high cost, low return investment. So the question about why the returns to a college education are falling – and the quite possible answer that college education no longer delivers the skills needed by students to succeed – never gets asked. I wonder how much help we’re giving the current generation of high school graduates by pushing very hard to get them expensive college degrees that may no longer be relevant today or in the future.

→ Finally, one of the key phrases I heard here in the last few days that will keep me thinking for quite a while is ‘equality of opportunity for non-profits’. There is always a lot of talk at philanthropy conferences about equality of opportunity for beneficiaries. But Paul Carttar of the Social Innovation Fund turned this idea on its head by suggesting that equality of opportunity is the reason why we need to catalyse the creation of evidence. As Paul points out, the key success metric of most non-profits today is hiring a charismatic executive director who can tell good stories. If a non-profit has such an ED then success is almost guaranteed, regardless of what the non-profit actually does. Thus, non-profits who don’t have such an ED don’t have equality of opportunity when it comes to funding. Evidence-based decision making puts all non-profits on an equal footing, where they have equal opportunity to access funding. So perhaps foundations should consider that the best way to create equality of opportunity for beneficiaries is to start by creating equality of opportunity for non-profits.

Tim Ogden is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy Action and an executive partner of Sona Partners.
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Tagged in: Council on Foundations Impact measurement Metrics

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