Hello. We are Bill Bickel, Jennifer Iriti, and Julie Meredith. We make up the optimistically named Evaluation for Learning Project (EFL) at the Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh. We are writing to share a recent experience we had working with a small, regional foundation interested in learning more from its grant making activities beyond its modest grant reports. Foundation leadership sensed that there was more to be gleaned from grantee experiences, especially about long-term effects of grants, which were not being captured. We were asked to devise a low cost way to help. Our learning protocol tip is what we came up with.
Tip: The following protocol was used with a test set of grantees.
- Identify a set of grantees to focus the learning exercise. Some common characteristics enriched the learning opportunity (e.g., grants closed for at least three years; some common goals and/or change methods [e.g., reliance on professional development in grantees’ work]; grantee leadership interested in learning).
- Develop an informal, retrospective theory of change (ToC) based upon existing grantee documents (e.g., applications & reports, write-ups, organizational descriptions).
- “Test” our ToC with grant leadership and refine. Debrief grantee leadership on what happened since the grant closed to document the enacted ToC.
- Poll grantee leadership on what the foundation could do to enhance their own and the foundation’s capacities to support future learning.
- Analyze individual and cross-grantee data for implications for foundation processes and write-up results in an accessible brief for all concerned.
EFL’s level of effort was modest. Insights gained about long-term outcomes, capacity building needs, and recommended changes in foundation application and reporting processes by early accounts are potentially useful both in the short and longer term. They are being vetted against the working knowledge of foundation leadership as we write. One can imagine many variations on the protocol; our point here is that past organizational experience has much to offer to a learning agenda if tapped in even an informal way.
Recommended resources that provide additional insights to support learning in “small foundations with big learning agenda” follow.
Resource: Marli Melton, Jan. Kay. Slater & Wendy Constantine have a useful chapter on ways evaluation can support learning in “Strategies for Smaller Foundations”.
Resource: Though not specifically targeted to small foundations Michael Patton, John Bare, & Deborah Bonnet offer insights on “Building Strong Foundation-Grantee Relationships,”– quite relevant to building learning in such contexts.
Both can be found in: Eds. M. Braverman, J. K. Slater, and N. Constantine. (2004). Foundations & Evaluation: Contexts & Practices for Effective Philanthropy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.*
*American Evaluation Association members receive 20% off on all Jossey-Bass titles when ordered directly from the publisher. Just sign on to the AEA website and select “Publications Discount Codes” from the members only for details.
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