SIM TIG Week: Grantmakers, Grantees and Evaluators Learning Together by Jill Lipski and John Fetzer

Hi, we’re Jill Lipski Cain of The Improve Group and John Fetzer of Northwest Area Foundation. We recently collaborated on an evaluation of the Foundation’s Social Enterprise Initiative, which funded nonprofit social enterprises (NSEs). The evaluation explored 1) the impact of the enterprises for individuals and communities; 2) what it takes for the enterprises to be successful; and 3) the role of the enterprise in supporting the overall mission of the nonprofit.

Lessons Learned:

  • While the evaluation used many standard evaluation approaches (interviews, case studies, and document reviews), it focused on questions unique to social enterprises. This included an exploration of whether the nonprofit should be able to sustain itself from the revenues of its enterprise. We learned that factors other than business acumen affected whether the NSE could sustain itself, including the customer base served and the extent to which the nonprofit invested in expenses such as holistic support of employees.
  • The field of social enterprises is complex, evolving rapidly, and the extent to which NSEs reduce barriers to employment and poverty at a wide scale is still unclear. Nonetheless, a wide range of strategies—from traditional investing, to loans, to grants—can support a wide variety of enterprises. This provides both flexibility in designing an approach that reflects the mission of the funder and social enterprise—and significant uncertainty about success.
  • In a literature review for the evaluation, we learned that there is both significant potential and modest, demonstrated evidence of broader social benefit from NSEs. However, potential negative impacts to individuals also exist. For example, one study examined the “benefits cliff” for social enterprise workers. It found that people with multiple barriers to work experienced a net loss because their NSE employment caused them to lose public program eligibility or reduced government transfers and lowered public subsidies for housing. Our primary goal must be to positively affect people’s lives. But best intentions quickly run into complicating factors—such as the way public benefits are designed in a particular state—that require us to redesign from the perspective of those we serve. We must consider the systems in which our programs and services operate. An evaluation can help us more clearly see the effect of those systems. 
  • Start with what you do know, then find out where you are interested in going, what you are concerned about, and what you are debating. Learning is an ongoing process. It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day work. Evaluations help organizations pause to reflect from a broader vantage point and course-correct.

Rad Resource: The Northwest Area Foundation’s Theory of Change helped guide the evaluation and proved to be an important lens for interpreting results. In collaboration with program officers, board members, grantees, and evaluators, we examined the results and discussed what the implications were for our initiative and future funding strategies. It can also be worth having a conversation looking at the Theory of Change through the lens of the evaluation and seeing if any change is needed to the Theory of Change.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Social Impact Measurement Week with our colleagues in the Social Impact Measurement Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our SIM TIG 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 theaea365 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 theAmerican Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “SIM TIG Week: Grantmakers, Grantees and Evaluators Learning Together by Jill Lipski and John Fetzer”

  1. Hello Jill and John,

    Thank you for your article. I am currently taking my Masters and I am enrolled in a course that focuses on Program Inquiry and Evaluation. I am also in my first year of teaching and learning many things from my students and colleagues.

    I really appreciate your last point under lessons learned. You define learning as an ongoing process and I could not agree more. It is important to take the time to reflect and acknowledge that adjustments can be made. Evaluations not only provide organizations with valuable information but also allow them to take action, make changes and improve.

    When it comes to funding and grants, I see the impact it has on students and the school community. As a school we recently received a grant to purchase some new tech for our MakerSpace. I am excited and hopeful that it will make the learning community even more interesting and engaging. I will also allow the space to meet the needs of more learning and provide them with different opportunities to better their overall learning.

    Thanks again for your insightful words.

  2. Hello Jill and John. As a part of my Masters degree, I am enrolled in a course that examines Program Inquiry and Evaluation. I have worked in the education and not-for-profit sectors, so your post resonated with me. On the NSE side, I can appreciate the importance that grants and loans can have on an organization’s effectiveness and how a program evaluation process can support its validity.
    I reviewed the secondary report that you included in your post (Maxwell, Rotz, Dunn, 2015). The findings were intriguing and confirmed some of my faith in NSE use and their impact on individuals in need. The return on investment of 123% is an essential value for society. One would hope that an NSE’s positive effect on an individual would allow them to improve their productivity and quality of life. NSE’s are an investment for those who need the extra hand-up.
    Workers within the NSE can use the evaluation process to monitor their own needs and challenges, as well as how the organization can adjust to meet, and hopefully exceed, those expectations.
    I appreciated your comment regarding using the evaluation as a model for reflection. In my experience in the not-for-profit sector, staff members can get so dialled-in to the process of delivering services and support; there are times when they do not pause to consider efficiencies and improvements through the eyes of an alternative perspective.

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