AZENet Week: Evan Mendelson on Evaluating System Change: Helping Donors Understand What Success Looks Like

I’m Evan Mendelson, Vice President of Donor Relations and Program Services at the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona (CFSA). I work with both sides of the philanthropic enterprise – the funders and the nonprofits they fund. Donors always ask nonprofits to evaluate how the grant they are providing makes a difference. Too often the nonprofit does not have adequate resources to answer that question. Except for more sophisticated large foundations, donors rarely understand the complex nature of evaluation, especially of systems change.

When we decided to change the way we funded large collaborations of nonprofits focusing on systems change, I decided that, not only would nonprofits have to transform how they think and work in a long term sustainable collaboration, but our donors would have to transform their thinking on what success looks like.  Systems change takes time and requires complex solutions that are not linear or easy to assess.

Lesson Learned:  When asking nonprofits to work toward collective impact, funders must also address the issue of collaboration, so that adequate funding is provided for the sustained effort necessary in such transformational community change. To make that happen, we created an educational strategy for our grants committee, CFSA Board, and other community funders, in addition to the capacity building program we have for nonprofits.

Hot Tip:  In their proposals, we ask each project to explain what success will look like in five years.   Halfway through the three-year grant, we ask them to provide a visual representation of the state of the system when they started, currently, and at the end of five years.  This has proven to be extremely valuable for both the project teams and the funders in maintaining a common understanding of success.

Rad Resources:

A Framework for Evaluating Systems Initiatives” by Julia Coffman

The foundation of our training module.

CFSA Collaboration Planning and Assessment Tool and Instructions

With our consultant, Wholonomy Consulting, we developed these workshops and evaluation strategies so everyone would have a common language on what success looks like at various stages of the initiative.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arizona Evaluation Network (AZENet) Affiliate Week with our colleagues in the AZENet AEA Affiliate. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our AZE members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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