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NPF TIG Week: Looking Inside the Black Box: Increasing Transparency between Foundations and Nonprofits by Marcela Gutierrez

Hello, I am Marcela Gutierrez. As an independent consultant hired by foundations to build evaluation capacity of nonprofits, I know first-hand the efforts they make and the frustrating feeling of not receiving feedback or learning how their contributions inform their funders. I also know busy program officers struggle to perform the competing tasks of grantmaking and M&E. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that while nonprofits must report what they do, outsiders know very little about what goes on inside the black box of a foundation. To improve transparency and build trust, the black box needs to be opened. So, a couple of years ago, I organized a panel at AEA called “Time for a Selfie: Evaluation Capacity Building for Funders”, which was co-sponsored by the Organizational Learning/ECB and the Foundation and Nonprofits Topical Interest groups. My hope was to shine the light on funders deeply committed to improving their own capacity so that their peers could learn from them, and nonprofits would finally see how they go from talking the talk to walking the walk. The AEA panel was followed by two, well attended, webinars on the topic.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Make Strategy, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (SMEL) competencies for staff explicit and applicable to internal processes. The Packard Foundation developed a list of SMEL competencies for its staff, including things like systems thinking, managing evaluations and sharing learning. The Foundation’s Human Resources department uses these competencies in its hiring and onboarding processes to screen for adaptive employees and expand performance management training areas.
  • Engage external MEL consultants.  The MacArthur and Packard foundations hire external MEL consultants as learning partners to support ongoing evaluation and strategy needs. Staff and partners come together periodically for peer to peer learning, often involving leadership team members.  The Barr Foundation and Duke Endowment have also used evaluators to deliver workshops on how to develop strategic learning habits and embed evaluative thinking in their internal evaluation frameworks.
  • Include grantees and program beneficiaries in the development of initiative-level evaluation frameworks. As part of its continually evolving focus on evaluation capacity building, The Children’s Trust of Miami Dade County creates formal evaluation frameworks for all its 27 major initiative groupings. The iterative process of development and reflection starts within the Research and Evaluation team, and slowly grows to include program staff, and eventually, funded providers and participants.
  • Partner with other funders to build capacity. The Scattergood Foundation engaged and convened the RISE Partnership. The groups’ goal is to cultivate organizational cultures of evaluation and building regional infrastructure supporting evaluation, and ultimately influencing greater effectiveness at multiple levels in their region.

In conclusion, evaluators concerned with strengthening partnerships between nonprofits and foundations can start by helping funders acknowledge the power and resource differentials and encouraging transparency about the internal decision-making informed by evaluations, and by changing the mindset of nonprofits from seeing data as a burdensome reporting requirement to embracing it as a tool for greater efficiency and impact.

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@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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