Philanthropy, by definition, is a noble endeavor. Generous gifts of time, talent and treasure have no doubt improved the world in countless ways. Whether the motive is to provide immediate relief of suffering, to support people in their development or to change systems’ ground rules to improve outcomes for even more people, philanthropy enjoys visibility and growth.
And yet, people want to know what good comes from their gifts. They want to know their gifts are in fact helping to make the world a better place. Congress, which covets the sector’s considerable assets, wants to know how to justify tax-exempt status. The pressure’s on to “show results.” Unfortunately, there’s a big disconnect between the knowledge of results we crave and the “knowledge” we get back from formal evaluation inquiries.
It seems simple enough. People want the data, knowledge and wisdom that assure we’re making progress on the big issues – issues like hunger, homelessness, injustice, ignorance. We want to know that the institutions we give to – our educational, arts and culture, social service, advocacy and justice institutions – are delivering. Does evaluation of results show our gifts make a difference? Are the measures of quality of life going up or down? Are we “moving the needle” and “bending the trend lines?” Unfortunately, the field of evaluation, itself an evolving profession with noble intentions, has not geared its practices to answer these questions in a way that satisfies our hunger to know.
A concern for funding the well-being of individuals can prevent us from seeing the larger systemic problems that keep people suffering. When we see a hungry person, we want to feed him. When we see a homeless person, we want to house her. When we see an injustice done, we want to right it. However, this practice of rescuing casualties one a time keeps our vision too close to the shore where casualties are found, without enough focus upstream where casualties are created (see “Saving the Babies: A Clash of Philanthropic Approaches”. Funding the rescue of one person at a time evokes evaluation practices that score success one person at a time, however temporary. Evaluation, asked to give an accounting of these rescue efforts, gives adequate information on how many people received soup, or affordable housing, or their day in court. These data may answer the question well enough, but they say nothing about the bigger question, “Are we stemming the flow of hungry, homeless or wronged people?” Both charitable and structural reform efforts are needed to stem these flows, with evaluation practices that honor the difference.
The typical practice of grantmaking – making one grant at a time, to one organization at a time, for one project at a time, for one year at a time – is a good way to keep order, but a poor way to support progress on the bigger issues. It keeps grantees’ efforts fragmented and focused on the small and the short-term, just so that they can report immediate results. But the short-term outcomes of a single grant can’t possibly resolve the big issues. One soup kitchen’s outcomes will not move the hunger needle beyond the meal just served, and neither will the efforts of all soup kitchens combined.
Making nonprofit organizations compete for relatively small amounts of cash puts them in competitive rather than cooperative modes. To survive in the marketplace of institutional philanthropy, nonprofit competitors play their cards close to the chest, choking innovation and stalling momentum and consolidation of effort that could solve real problems.
The Lady Bountiful attitude that prevailed at the birth of American philanthropy still exists and still gums the works. An attitude of righteousness can creep into the philanthropic transaction, in which those seeking money to make the world a better place are made to feel like common beggars. This attitude is well-established in institutional philanthropy, as evidenced in the kinds of criticisms leveled at funders by their nonprofit supplicants: arrogant, tardy, distant, uncommunicative, condescending, etc. As a colleague says, “Philanthropy is what allows a nonprofit to stand on its own two knees.”
Who owns philanthropy? For the answer, look at the board of directors of any philanthropic organization. Today’s form of philanthropic organizational governance comes directly from the private sector, drawing on forms from the early 20th century. “Scientific management,” all the rage then, took over American industry and from there, the institutionalization of human welfare and philanthropy itself. Scientific management advocated a standardized approach to the production of goods, managed from the top down, leading to consistent outputs that easily can be stamped out, measured and accounted for. And if it works for the production of goods, why not services? This put evaluation firmly into the hands of the bean counters. Business managers on philanthropic boards today continue to focus on organizational goals, organizational outcomes and the organization’s bottom line. The organization’s contribution to solutions to larger problems is off the books and not considered. The field of evaluation, born under the same signs that birthed scientific management, serves up what it can, resulting in the big disconnect between the answers we get and the knowledge we want.
Some parts of this vision are forthcoming. At the Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County in Wisconsin, staff position descriptions are geared to foundation goals and indicators of community vitality. At several large private foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, Packard Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Hewlett Foundation, evaluation staff work to construct evaluation as a “core learning practice,” helping program staff make sense of measured experience with foundation grants and initiatives. The Boston Foundation and Community Foundations of Canada make good of public data to guide philanthropic strategy. Foundations using the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Grantee Perception Report can compare their performance with others’. Examining the root causes of social problems, inequities and injustices is becoming acceptable. But assembling actionable pieces to apply pressure on a set of community-held problem indicators, yielding a wider view of productivity, is an approach in need of promotion.
Some of the above themes are sounded admirably in Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ 2009 publication, Evaluation in Philanthropy.
The complexity of the world and its implications for philanthropy and evaluation in support of change is well-noted in Blueprint Research & Design’s (2005) publication, “The Challenge of Assessing Policy and Advocacy Activities: Strategies for a Prospective Evaluation Approach.”
FSG Social Impact Advisors’ “From Insight to Action: New Directions in Foundation Evaluation” (April 2007), spotlights emerging approaches to evaluation in philanthropy.
The website www.JustPhilanthropy.org shows how the arena of racial inequities is approachable by philanthropic practice that deliberately tries to close the disparity gaps.
Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. is the director of Effective Communities Project and can be reached at StevenEMayer@justphilanthropy.org