I’m Prentice Zinn. I work at GMA Foundations, a philanthropic services organization in Boston.
Funders and their grantees are not having an honest conversation about evaluation.
A few people accepted this dynamic as one of the existential absurdities of the nonprofit sector.
Others shared stories about pushing back when the expectations of foundations about measurement were unrealistic or unfair.
Everyone talked about the over-emphasis on metrics and accountability, the capacity limits of nonprofits, and the lack of funding for evaluation.
Others began to imagine what the relationship would be like if we emphasized learning more than accountability.
As we ended the conversation, someone asked my favorite question of the day:
“Are funders aware of their prejudices and power?”
Here is what I learned about why funders may resist more honest conversations with nonprofits about evaluation and data:
Business Conformity. When foundations feel pressure to be more “business-like” they will expect nonprofit organizations to conform to the traditional business models of strategy developed in the late 20th century. Modern management theory treats organizational strategy as if it was the outcome of a rational, predictable, and analytical process when the real world is messy and complex.
Accountability and Risk Management. When foundations feel pressure to be accountable to the public, their boards, and their peers, they may exert more control over their grantees to maximize positive outcomes. Exercising fiduciary responsibility pressures funders to minimize risk by estimating probabilities of success and failure. They will put pressure on grantees to provide conforming narratives based on logic models, theories of change, outcome measurements, and performance monitoring.
Outcomes Anxiety. Funders increase their demands for detailed data and metrics that indicate progress when
they get frustrated at the uneven quality of outcome information they get from nonprofits.
Data Fetishism. Funders may seek data without regard for its validity, reliability, or usefulness because society promotes unrealistic expectations of the explanatory power of data. When data dominates the perception of reality and what we are seeing, it may crowd out other ways of understanding what is going on.
Confirmation Bias and Overgeneralization. When foundations lack external pressures or methods to examine their own assumptions about evaluation, they may overgeneralize about the best ways to monitor and evaluate change and end up collecting evidence that confirms their own ways of thinking.
Careerism and Self-Interest. When the staff of foundations seek to advance their professional power, privilege, and prestige, they may favor the dominant models of organizational theory and reproduce them as a means of gaining symbolic capital in the profession.
Rad Resource: Widespread Empathy: 5 Steps to Achieving Greater Impact in Philanthropy. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. 2011. Tips to help funders develop an empathy mindset.
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