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Perspectives on Building Interaction and Understanding between Nonprofits and Foundations by Ann Price, Susan Wolfe and Jenn Ballentine

Hi everyone. We are Ann Price (Community Evaluation Solutions), Susan Wolfe (Susan Wolfe and Associates) and Jenn Ballentine (Highland Nonprofit Consulting). We are independent evaluators and sometimes collaborate in our work with foundations and nonprofits. In this blog we want to discuss the natural and complex tension between nonprofits and funders.

There is an inherent power difference between funders and grantees. Foundations set funding agendas based on a host of priorities and values. Nonprofits must make a case that matches funder priorities to secure funding. In some cases, the purpose of the funding may not fit their mission or values, but the pressure to make ends meet is a reality. Additionally, some nonprofits, especially those trying to establish a new relationship with a foundation, may be hesitant to ask for the amount of funding for the length of time they really need to make a difference.

Other sources of tension exist and manifest in various ways. For example, the foundation makes an investment and has some expectation that investment will lead to some lasting positive outcomes for the community. The nonprofit on the other hand, may be focused on day to day realities of making payroll and administering programs in the community. Often foundations want information about the collective learning of their investment while nonprofits want some basic understanding of the effectiveness of their programs and services. However, many nonprofits lack the expertise and capacity to collect, analyze, and report data.

What can the evaluator do?
First be aware of the power dynamics between Foundations and the nonprofits that depend on them. When you can:

Help to begin important conversations.

Rad Resource: Prentice Zinn’s 2017 AEA Blog on the power differential between Foundations and Nonprofits.

Help to promote learning. There are Foundations that are investing in organizational and evaluation capacity; let the foundations you work with know about these efforts.

Innovative Example. Healthcare Georgia Foundation’s Empower Health is a capacity building grant program that promotes organizational capacity in health nonprofits in Georgia to maximize the effectiveness of staff and nonprofit boards.

Help translate the language of evaluation to improve use.

Lesson Learned: Sometimes our language (i.e. logic models, outputs, outcomes, evaluands, etc.) doesn’t translate to clients. Evaluators need to be flexible and use language and techniques that can be understood. For example, using  a Success Equation may be appropriate. Jason Saul introduced this concept in his book, Benchmarking for Nonprofits as a way to help organizations define their priority outcomes, strategies to achieve their ultimate impact, and measure progress toward that impact. Sounds like a logic model, right? But the language of strategy is the language of foundations and if we want to make a difference for the Foundations and nonprofits, we serve we need to speak their language. As Patton and Patrizi (2010) suggest, “That which concerns them, should concern us.”

Rad Resource: Patton, M. Q., & Patrizi, P.A. (2010). Strategy as the focus for evaluation. In P.A. Patrizi & M.Q. Patton (Eds.), Evaluating strategy. New Directions for Evaluation, 128, 5-28.

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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