NPF TIG Week: Kamilah Henderson on Working with Nonprofits to Maximize Evaluation Capacity

Hi, I’m Kamilah Henderson, Evaluation Fellow at Skillman Foundation in Detroit. I work with Foundation staff and partners to create learning opportunities that inform the work of improving conditions for Detroit kids.

Skillman provided a social innovation grant to the Detroit Bus Company to develop the Youth Transit Alliance (YTA), creating a long-term transportation solution for youth in Southwest Detroit. YTA’s work has required nimbleness and creative agility to respond to shifts in the volatile ecosystem in which the project is embedded. As an internal evaluator, I used rapid learning to complement the spirit and energy of the YTA’s work to 1) highlight and track tangible changes in program strategy, 2), develop a rigorous data collection system, 3) surface solutions in a way that fosters continued mutual responsiveness and collaboration.

Lesson Learned:

Social innovators work fast solving seemingly intractable problems. Rapid learning allows foundations to match the pace of social innovators who need data to inform their swift responses to systems level changes.

Hot Tip #1: Demonstrate Values of Collaboration through Action. Developing evaluation relationships early in project planning ensures that rapid learning addresses the concerns of the grantee and Foundation. Starting with this value has made for stronger learning questions. As implementers of the work, YTA learned from the rapid learning cycles about moving key levers in systems change for kids, and Skillman’s Social Innovation team learned about providing technical assistance resources for core grantees.

Hot Tip #2: Use Tried and True Tools. Beverly Parsons developed a framework to assess program development as it moves toward sustainability and scaling. The framework helped me identify strategy changes the YTA employed during their pilot year. Parsons’ tool was beneficial in the absence of a logic model, which is sometimes the case with social innovation projects versus traditional nonprofit programs.

Hot Tip #3: Faster is Better. Instead of year-end reports, YTA has appreciated getting the results of data analyses within months so that they could more quickly shift the direction of their work toward better outcomes for kids. Skillman has valued learning as the work progresses rather than after a grant cycle has ended. Melanie Hwalek’s memo format is a helpful tool for presenting critical analyses without the long wait.

Rad Resource: Evaluating Social Innovation, by Preskill and Beer.

Rad Resource: The Real-Time Evaluation Memo, by Melanie Hwalek.

Rad Resource: Developing a Framework for Systems-Oriented Evaluation, by Beverly Parsons.

Get Involved: I would love to hear from others who are doing similar work. I will be presenting with a panel of colleagues at the AEA Conference. Please join Marie Colombo, Sara Plachta Elliott, Nancy Latham and me at Learning about Rapid Learning: Identifying Approaches that Increase Evaluation Use in System-Building.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating 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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.


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