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NPF TIG Week: Designing Foundation L&E Functions by Albertina Lopez

Albertina Lopez

Hello! I am Dr. Albertina Lopez, director at the Center for Evaluation Innovation where we partner with philanthropy on strategy, learning, and evaluation efforts that intend to further racial equity and social justice. Today I am discussing how to design foundation learning and evaluation (L&E) functions so that they are grounded in clear purpose and values.

More than 75% of foundations are orienting their L&E work so that it helps to advance equity, according to our latest benchmarking research. They are also changing the positioning of the L&E function, such as who it reports to and where it sits, and emphasizing learning more, to name a few. All of this points to one reality: change abounds.

In our practice, we hear foundation partners wonder how they can align the L&E function to their (often new) values and what they need to stop, start, or keep doing. Below are three hot tips that can ground decisions about how to design an L&E function that is based on purpose and values.

Hot Tips

Allow form to follow function. Beginning design with purposeis an architectural design principle. Like designing a building that starts with a clear intention, a foundation’s L&E function should start a new design or redesign with a clear strategy. An L&E strategy includes a mix of ingredients that define its direction and provides answers to questions such as:

  • What is the purpose of the L&E function?
  • What are its values and vision?
  • What goals are driving the next few years?
  • How does it add value to the organization?
  • Who are its audiences?
  • What kinds of services and products does it provide?

Create design criteria. Design criteria, which clarify the organizational capacities needed for success, are created from a foundation’s L&E strategy. They include a combination of skills, processes, technology, human abilities, and other competencies that enable the strategy to be operationalized effectively. Say, for example, a foundation is revisiting its strategy because of a desire to be more equitable, which many in the sector are doing. Foundations who are practicing the Equitable Evaluation Framework™, for instance, may design their L&E functions so that it can:

  • Focus on equity outcomes
  • Employ culturally sensitive approaches
  • Prioritize participant ownership
  • Address structural and historical inequities
  • Analyze effects on different communities

Focus L&E design possibilities. After getting clear on an L&E function’s strategy and capacity needs, or design criteria, then it’s time to think about structure, processes, people, and reward systems—the “building” blocks of organizations that will enable the design to be realized. Following our example design criteria above, we might get curious around:

  • Where should L&E power and authority be placed? Maybe its housed within an equity team.
  • What kind of knowledge and skills do our people need? Perhaps relationship building is essential.
  • What routines and procedures should govern how the work is done? Maybe community advisory groups are a normal practice.
  • What kind of reward system would motivate people? Possibly a formal foundation-wide recognition policy that celebrates equity practices becomes a norm.

How is your foundation staying grounded in L&E purpose and values? What’s working and not? Share your insights with our community.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Nonprofits and Foundations Topical Interest Group (NPFTIG) Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our NPFTIG 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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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