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NPF TIG Week: Thinking differently to measure creative risk by Madeline Brandt

I’m Madeline Brandt, a member of the research and evaluation team at Oregon Community Foundation. One of the initiatives we evaluate for the foundation is Creative Heights, which funds 10-15 arts organizations and artists each year to execute “creatively risky” projects.

Because of the nature of these projects, we don’t measure success using indicators like attendance or number of tickets sold. If projects are doing Creative Heights “right,” they’re creating something that’s probably not for everyone. They’re pushing themselves, their organizations, audiences and their art form to its edge, and testing things out. This creates a fascinating conundrum for us as evaluators. It’s also an opportunity for us to work differently, and parallel their work by trying out things that feel risky and different, making changes and adapting as we learn.

Rad Resource: Our approach has been informed by the Equitable Evaluation Initiative; their orthodoxies helped us identify what we’re doing to reinforce the status quo in foundation-nonprofit relationships, and their principles helped us think about working differently.

Hot Tip: Think critically about initiative goals and information needs. We work closely with the program officer to explore what we are collecting, why we collect it, and who it is for. These questions help us design evaluation activities, which primarily consist of two interviews with project teams, and informed our decision to have the final interview serve as the grant report.

Hot Tip: Work to acknowledge power dynamics. Nonprofits are accustomed to selling themselves to funders and want to avoid being perceived as a “risky” investment. But creative stretch demands boldness; some degree of failure is not just possible—it’s likely. We spend a lot of time telling teams that their projects may not turn out as they anticipated; that’s an important part of risk-taking, creativity, learning and growth. It’s essential to Creative Heights, and for us to meet our own goals as an initiative and as evaluators.

Hot Tip: Report at the initiative level so projects are not singled out as “successes” or “failures.” We ask them to be honest with what’s not working, what they didn’t anticipate, and what they may not have been ready for. That’s hard! One way to preserve trust is by not singling out projects, but rather reporting on the cohort as a whole.

Hot Tip: Encourage projects to define success for themselves, rather than the foundation dictating what success will look like. Creative Heights teams have varied goals and unique visions of what “success” will look like for their project. These ideas change over time as projects take shape, adapt and evolve. We concentrate on supporting teams in reflection, learning and documentation as they take risks and goals or ideas change. We are along for the ride, learning together as we go.

Photo: Pianist Hunter Noack’s In A Landscape project, recipient of a Creative Heights grant. Photo credit: Bridget Baker

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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