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CD TIG Week: Using Evaluation to Guide Foundations on Community Development By Douglas Easterling

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.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Community Development TIG Week with our colleagues in the Community Development Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our CD TIG 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@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.


2 thoughts on “CD TIG Week: Using Evaluation to Guide Foundations on Community Development By Douglas Easterling”

  1. Hi Dr. Easterling,

    I really appreciated your article here. I work for a Foundation in Canada, and you have highlighted both some of the concerns that I see that could exist with funding going to a Foundation, as well as some of the strategies to mitigate those risks.

    I don’t know if you have read the book Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas (I am sure there are other books on the topic, but this happens to have been the one that I read), but it paints a bleak picture of what philanthropy is actually doing: taking funds out of the public sphere (i.e. taxes that go towards infrastructure and services etc.) and picking specific things to spend that money on, which may or may not be the most urgent place where it should be spent.

    Foundations can do a lot of good. For instance, I work at a Foundation that is connected to our local community college, and we raise money and in-kind donations to support our students, which is of course incredibly worthwhile. However, we have seen a shift in Ontario where the government is no longer supporting students to the degree they have in the past. Are public institutions going to need to rely more and more on private money? And if so, what does public education look like? Is there influence over what is taught when someone contributes their significant resources to it? An evaluator would have an important, non-biased ability to help ensure that the funds going towards something is actually doing what they believe it should be doing.


    1. Hi Katie:
      I very much appreciate the perspective you’re offering here. I’m not as familiar with the Canadian context as I should be (which I know is a lame and all-too-familiar refrain), but there is a long-simmering debate in the U.S. about the wisdom and the ethics of depending on private philanthropy (rather than government) to advance the common good. Tax policy incentivizes this substitution, which allows philanthropists to support whatever charitable causes, organizations and projects suit their fancy, even though the foregone revenue to government might have been used more effectively, efficiently or equitably (all of course depending on one’s perspective).

      But this is even more reason for evaluators to be better integrated into philanthropy. Most foundations don’t consult with independent evaluators. If they did, I would expect that we would see a lot more evidence of uninformed grantmaking and ineffective foundation strategy. For the sake of both accountability and learning, evaluators are critical agents of reform for philanthropy.
      Thanks for writing.

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