Using data and evaluation to support, not punish grantees

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 - 2:09 pm
Anne Radday

At the Council on Foundations Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., some funders were expressing a move toward a new way of doing business with their grantees. Accountability has long been a theme in grantmaking. It has traditionally been top-down – foundations being held accountable to the people whose money they are spending and grantees being held accountable to the foundations. This has led to an unequal balance of power that can (and does) get in the way of grantees’ ability to focus on their missions as they try to keep the grantmakers happy.

Earlier this week there were clear signs that the language is shifting – sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly – to focus on mutual accountability to the mission. Without a doubt, the pressure from grantmakers on their grantees to evaluate their work and prove outcomes is growing. But the accountability conversation is shifting away from being punitive about evaluation and reporting to being collaborative.

“Who are we to evaluate you?,” asked Grace Hou of the Woods Fund Chicago in the session about Collaborative Approaches to Learning and Evaluation. Hou spoke about the Wood Fund’s Grantee Evaluation Committee that helped the foundation create its new evaluation framework. The framework has moved away from the punitive question, “Did you succeed or not?” Instead it asks grantees where they fall along the spectrum of community organizing and advocacy, and if a grantee did not achieve its goals, it asks what went wrong. Through this framework the grantee and foundation can learn how they can work together toward a successful long-term partnership.

The Woods Fund is just one example of this shift in the grantmaker/grantee relationship that I heard at the Philanthropy Exchange. As this shift continues, nonprofits, grantmakers, and most importantly, the people being served by our social sector will gain tremendously. No one has all the answers, so moving away from using data and measurement as a pass/fail test and instead using it to inform where organizations are relative to their goals and how they can move forward to achieve them, will enable the sector to change more lives.

Anne Radday is Senior Manager, Research and Assessments at Root Cause, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive services for organizations and funders nationwide. She can be reached at or 617-649-1536.

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