Supporting grantee evaluation can help you increase your impact in ways you may not have considered.
Evaluating grantee impact can provide important data to keep an organization accountable for achieving its goals and to help it make informed decisions about programs and strategy. But there are other, less obvious, benefits to conducting evaluations. We recently had occasion to think about some of these other ways evaluation can help maximize an organization’s impact, in the wake of an evaluation project we conducted with the Mortenson Center, a grantee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Specifically, our experience with the Mortenson Center demonstrated four less-than-obvious reasons to evaluate that may be helpful for you and your grantees to consider, too.
#1: Evaluation can strengthen advocacy and support sustainability.
Evaluations provide data that can help grantees make the case for their work. For the Mortenson Center—a library training program housed within a large university—our evaluation findings helped bolster efforts to build awareness of the program’s strong global reputation and track record of effectiveness. Specifically, the opportunity to share evaluation findings positioned the Mortenson Center to secure new champions—university administrators—as well as potential new supporters among the external audiences those champions meet with. We have seen evaluation lead to increased sustainability and donor diversity in other projects, too. This potential outcome makes evaluation particularly salient if you have concerns that an otherwise strong grantee is overly dependent on your funding.
#2: Evaluation can spread what works.
Evaluations can help funders and nonprofits discover the secret ingredients of effective program implementation—i.e., the factors that make the organization successful—and provide opportunities to spread effective practices across a field. We saw this in the case of the Mortenson evaluation: our report documenting the reasons for the center’s success has been shared widely among librarians and other leaders in the library field. We saw something similar during a recent evaluation Arabella completed for an advocacy funder. After completing the evaluation, Arabella used the findings to develop a case study that the funder then shared with other advocates so that they could replicate its successful model. While evaluations typically include some sensitive information that should not be shared beyond the funder and grantee involved, funders can often find sensible (and appropriately sensitive) ways to use evaluation findings to spread what works and help advance their fields.
#3: Evaluation can help prepare organizations for leadership—and other crucial—changes.
When evaluations uncover what makes leaders effective (or ineffective for that matter), they can be useful for an organization’s future hiring and succession planning efforts. They might also point to the need for succession planning if an organization hasn’t anticipated that need yet. With the Mortenson Center evaluation, information about the factors that made the center effective was critical when, several months later, a key leader and trainer announced her retirement. The evaluation provided the organization both with an understanding of the attributes a leader needs to succeed in this position and a means of explaining to candidates what the organization does and has achieved to date.
#4: Evaluations provide an opportunity to build grantees’ own monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) capacity.
Many grantees don’t have the capacity—in terms of systems, processes, tools, or expertise—to track and learn from their work to the extent that you, as their funder, might wish. Grantee evaluation can provide an opportunity to address that. We complemented the retrospective evaluation we did with the Mortenson Center with work to bolster the center’s own MEL efforts so that, moving forward, it has a common set of outcomes and metrics to use to assess its work. When conducting a grantee evaluation, funders should look for opportunities to build the organization’s capacity to collect and integrate data into its own ongoing learning and strategy work. While this may require a deeper investment at the outset in grantee evaluation, it can lead to major savings—not to mention increased impact—over time.
Melanie Torres is a senior director in Arabella’s New York office where she works with a range of Arabella’s institutional foundation and corporate clients, helping them to develop and refresh their grant-making strategies, identify opportunities to deploy their philanthropic resources, and evaluate the impact of their work.