Organizations are complex, dynamic entities, and funders and evaluators alike are wise to tread carefully when attempting to assess and improve their operations. That said, a thoughtful organizational effectiveness evaluation can provide crucial feedback that both funder and grantee can use to strengthen the organization and position it for impact long beyond a particular grant cycle. How can you design such a thoughtful evaluation? There’s no one answer to that question, but the following five reminders can help you get started.
Reminder #1: Right-size your expectations
As you think through evaluating a grant that’s meant to build an organization, carefully consider what types of changes that grant can reasonably be expected to achieve and on what timeline, and align your expectations accordingly. Bear in mind that significant organizational changes take significant time and resources. For example: one funder Julie has worked with made a grant to support the hire of a clinical program director to lead an innovative health-care clinic. The funder wanted to measure success by the number of people the organization served after the new program director came on board—until they realized together that the clinic would need additional leadership, staff, and program changes before it could reasonably expect to see an increase in clients.
Reminder #2: Think early and often about how the organization can incorporate recommended changes
Evaluations of organizational effectiveness often lead to recommendations for changes to processes and procedures—and, as we all know, organizational change is hard. To help the organizations you fund incorporate changes based on your evaluation efforts, be sure you understand the grantee’s existing workflows and reporting systems from the start—or build this understanding through the evaluation process. As recommendations based on the evaluation begin to emerge, consider how they will affect those existing workflows and how the grantee can best build them into business as usual. For example, if the evaluation recommends that an organization strengthen ties with community leaders, be sure it also explores who within the organization will be responsible for building these relationships—and how they will be maintained over time.
Reminders #3: Think beyond a single grantee
When evaluating organizational effectiveness, you have to think carefully about the specific circumstances of the particular organization you are trying to build—but that doesn’t mean you, and the organization, shouldn’t also think about the work of others. If you are funding a single grantee, consider how similar organizations work and ask questions that encourage your grantee to examine those other models. If you are funding a cohort of grantees, consider measuring grantee progress along the way and encouraging grantees to share successes and lessons learned: such sharing can promote networks and build peer support that will bolster their work after the current funding ends. Julie once evaluated a partnership between an early learning funder and a school district in which the leaders of funded school programs met regularly to discuss their efforts to create sustainable early learning programs. Along the way, the grantees developed their own collaborative, began to lean on one another to find additional sources of funding, and shared professional development opportunities for their staffs. In effect, ongoing evaluation helped to strengthen multiple organizations.
Reminder #4: Look far into the future
You can also help your grantees by thinking like a retirement planner: use the evaluation as an opportunity to ask questions that encourage them to consider what they need to be doing now to help ensure the future they want to see. For example, you can ask in the evaluation about the organization’s plans for succession and leadership changes—or about when and how governance rules will be amended, new policies and procedures written, or changes to bylaws passed. All of these are indicators that the organization is preparing for the future.
Reminder #5: Assume that one size fits one
There are a number of checklists and tools that can help you think about how you want to measure organizational effectiveness, and they can be extremely helpful when developing an evaluation plan or thinking about what you want to influence through your grant making. But when it comes to evaluating organizational effectiveness, it’s best to assume that one size fits one. Checklists (and in a way this blog is one of them) are best used as springboards: start with them, but tailor them to your own interests and priorities as well as to those of your grantees.
Ultimately, a thoughtful evaluation of organizational effectiveness can help ensure that your funded grantees have the capacities, skills, and resources they need to do their work in a productive and sustained way and deliver impact over the long haul. We hope these reminders will help you create one.
Julie Slay leads Arabella’s evaluation practice, employing a range of methodologies and tools to help clients understand the effectiveness of their grants and other investments—and ultimately determine how they can best use their resources to achieve the outcomes they seek. She directs teams using both qualitative and quantitative evaluation approaches to conduct developmental, formative, and retrospective evaluations, as well as to develop evaluation frameworks, tools, and instruments that enable ongoing learning, effective monitoring, and practical program management.
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.