I’m Doug Easterling, Ph.D, a faculty member at Wake Forest School of Medicine. For the past 27 years I’ve been immersed in and fascinated by the work that foundations do to promote community-building and community-based problem-solving. I was the Director of Research and Evaluation at The Colorado Trust when the foundation experimented with approaches like the Colorado Healthy Communities Initiative and have served as an external evaluator or strategy advisor to a dozen foundations doing community-based initiatives.
The more I see and hear, the more that I am struck by the power that foundations have to disrupt the systems, practices, relationships, norms and assumptions that define communities. Disruption is sometimes a good thing – when it causes people to recognize new possibilities, take initiative, reach out to people who are “different,” find common ground, make institutions more inclusive, etc. But too often foundations disrupt communities in ways that foster struggles over for scarce resources, instill mistrust, and undermine residents’ ability to control their own destiny.
Evaluators can play a crucial role in guiding foundations to be smart and responsible with their community-based initiatives. They listen to community members and bring their observations and wisdom back to the foundation, along with recommendations for maximizing benefit and minimizing harm. Perhaps even more valuably, evaluators can help set good strategy before an initiative is implemented. Whether the task at hand is a logic model, a theory of change or some other mapping exercise, an outside evaluator can ask hard questions that bring assumptions into view – so that they can be scrutinized before launching an ambitious, multi-million dollar community intervention.
Two of the most important assumptions to clarify in this mapping work involve: 1) how things will get better in the community under the initiative, and 2) how the foundation’s contributions will support this change process.
Rad Resource: In evaluating the Clinton Foundation’s Community Health Transformation (CHT) model, my colleagues and I at the Wake Forest Strategic Philanthropy Research Group developed a taxonomy of the different roles that a foundation can play in advancing community-based efforts to improve health. To date, we have identified four possible roles:
- Driver – the foundation identifies a community need, finds an opportunity, and provides funding and other resources to local organizations to take advantage of that opportunity.
- Supporter – the foundation provides resources to programs designed by community members, without attempting to influence them.
- Enhancer – rather than passively supporting locally designed programs, the foundation also brings resources and expertise to increase their effectiveness or to expand their scale or scope.
- Activator/Facilitator– the foundation encourages and supports community members in moving ideas and plans into effective action.
This taxonomy proved valuable to the Clinton Foundation in conveying the effect they had in their communities, as well as in clarifying the CHT program model. We have also used the taxonomy with other foundations as a tool for both clarifying their strategy and focusing the evaluation. Foundation staff are sometimes surprised to learn what they doing, which I think is a good thing.
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