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Evaluation Beyond Accountability

By Ria Sengupta Bhatt

For those of us immersed in the evaluation field, we know that a well-executed evaluation can do much more than serve as a method of accountability or fulfill a requirement. Especially in the field of philanthropy, a comprehensive evaluation can facilitate continuous learning within foundations and the field at large, increase the effectiveness of a grantmaking strategy, and increase innovation. But not all grantmakers fully embrace this approach. GEO’s most recent national study of philanthropic practice found that while 70% of grantmakers engage in evaluation, most are still “focused on proof and accountability rather than learning with their peers inside and outside of their organization.”

This trend seems to be changing, however. I recently attended GEO’s National Conference in Seattle, Washington, which reinforced how evaluation can help foster collaboration among grantmakers. For example, one session focused on the idea that large-scale, long-term social change can be achieved more effectively through collective impact. The group discussed how shared measurement systems are an essential component of collaboration, as it creates agreement around what constitutes success. At another session focused on incorporating evaluation into philanthropy, an attendee pondered why more grantmakers don’t attempt to coordinate reporting requirements with other grantmakers to reduce reporting burden, particularly when they are trying to achieve the same results.

The intersection of the themes of evaluation and collaboration among funders shows yet another way that evaluation can be useful for purposes beyond accountability. While the results of GEO’s survey show that there is room for growth in the use of evaluation in philanthropy, I have seen a perceptible shift in this type of thinking in my work. I am further encouraged by the conversations that took place at the conference that suggest this shift is occurring across various types of grantmakers. The more often grantmakers get together to discuss evaluation, the faster the field of philanthropy will be able to take advantage of its many uses and strengths.