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Good intentions are not enough: Evaluation must be useful to philanthropy, especially during a pandemic

Kim Ammann Howard

Nikki Kalra, Consultant at ORS Impact and Sarah Stachowiak, CEO at ORS Impact

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many of the issues philanthropy seeks to solve: gross inequities, system breakdowns, and inadequate solutions to problems that affect people’s lives and the environment every day. While these issues aren’t new, especially to those directly affected, they are gaining greater attention.

Philanthropy’s current focus is, rightfully, on how best to respond to the crisis, including how to support grantees and other partners quickly and efficiently as situations rapidly change, and consider power, types of grants, and who gets the money. Everyone—staff, evaluators, and grantees—is balancing health, family, stress, and uncertainty. Now, perhaps more than ever, funders need meaningful evaluation to support their work.

However, when the need to get money out the door feels especially urgent, foundation evaluation and program staff, grantees, and other key stakeholders can sometimes be reluctant to spend valuable time to engage in evaluation. This is when meaningful evaluation is most needed.

Good evaluation provides data, information, and insights that go beyond our tacit knowledge to reveal what our own limited vantage points and biases may cause us to miss. It generates relevant, salient results that can help funders drive better decisions and more effective strategies to address the ongoing and urgent issues of our time.

When evaluation efforts are done well, the precious investment of time is well worth the short-term cost.

The Funder and Evaluator Affinity Network (FEAN) recently released a report focused on ways evaluations can better support foundation strategy and practice, to help determine the most effective use of resources and advance collective knowledge and impact. If the value proposition for evaluation and learning in foundations is at least in part that it will drive better results, then evaluations — both during a crisis, and before the next one happens — must result in meaningful insights. Yet, this is not always the case. In fact, the biggest challenge that evaluators and foundation staff face is that evaluations often don’t provide new or meaningful data.

In response to this, our report outlines some key areas of focus for strengthening the utility of evaluation, including:

  • The need for evaluators and foundation staff to learn more about each other
  • Understanding decision-making processes and timeframes
  • Aligning evaluation questions with what decision makers need to know
  • Explicitly linking evaluation to equity and ensuring it advances equity
  • Embracing and managing tensions inherent in evaluation (e.g., learning vs. accountability)
  • Going beyond the delivery of reports to support ongoing learning and application of findings


The report also surfaces how evaluators, funders, and those they work with can have new or different conversations, try new techniques or approaches, and foster continued innovation in the field. We hope evaluators and funders will find this report useful for making their evaluation efforts more meaningful for themselves and the people they serve.

This piece is part of larger FEAN Call to Action series to address five challenges in philanthropic evaluation.