Over the years, I have worked with incredible funders across Europe and globally. My entry point has been in supporting the monitoring, evaluation and learning needs of their grantees; I carried out evaluations, built and supported the implementation of measuring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) systems, as well as facilitated learning processes. Often, funders have been keen for their grantees to have feedback systems in place that would allow them to listen and respond to the needs of those they are serving, and I helped with that using a wide range of participatory approaches and methods.

The MEL and feedback systems I built and implemented over the years provided useful insight on how to improve interventions. The insights were mostly used by grantees, although they were also relevant for informing funder strategy. But it usually just stopped there.

As an example, I remember one funder supporting initiatives on early childhood development that wanted me to focus exclusively on the ultimate impact that their grantees were having. In particular, they sought an answer to the question, “How many children’s lives have we changed?”

It took a lot of work to convince them that answering that question was not going to tell them anything useful about how to manage and improve their own work. For one thing, the change in children’s lives was made by the work of their grantees, not by the foundation itself. Secondly, using the answer to this question in order to decide whether to continue funding certain initiatives represented a simplistic approach to a highly complex issue, where outcomes can only be seen in the long-term. While I was not able to convince them to change the focus of the evaluation, I did manage to get through the idea that in addition to assessing their grantees’ effectiveness they should also be looking at their own effectiveness as a funder.

The position of this particular funder is not uncommon – even after years of our collective conversation about the importance of funder effectiveness. Often, when I talk to funders, they tend equate their effectiveness with that of their grantees; when they think of assessment they tend to think about how to assess the work of their grantees, without considering an assessment of how they, as funders, are supporting that work, though research has shown the latter is a crucial measure of funder effectiveness.

This is, fortunately, changing. In recent years I have been increasingly involved in conversations where I hear funders using expressions like, “We want to set our grantees up for success.” This is an acknowledgment of the different catalytic roles that philanthropy plays, beyond being ‘just’ a provider of funds. And it also begs the question: “How do you know if you are actually setting them up for success?”

Read the full article about funder effectiveness by Natalia Kiryttopoulou at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.