In January 2022, more than 500 people across philanthropy joined us for a webinar exploring the question, “What does a more equitable and trust-based approach to learning and evaluation look like?” While we were blown away by the overwhelming level of interest, this also affirmed something we were hearing from more and more funders: philanthropy’s approach to learning and evaluation must change.

Industry standard, funder-driven evaluation tends to take a top-down, extractive approach to gathering and analyzing data, focusing on quantitative metrics and project-specific, short-term outcomes. In this context, measuring impact in a narrowly defined, time-delimited way is what matters. Learning is limited to what is readily available to be discreetly measured.

This approach often accompanies well-intentioned strategic philanthropy, where funders define the challenge and name parameters for desired solutions. In this approach, funders only see a small piece of the puzzle. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to understand and therefore better support the full picture of change organizations and communities are working toward, and the obstacles they face in getting there.

What if we reimagined evaluation as an opportunity for funders to learn and evolve as stewards, rather than taking on the narrow – and virtually impossible – task of proving that limited grants make a measurable impact on longstanding, complex social issues?

When learning and evaluation takes on a more expansive view, it invites adaptability, complexity, and long-term thinking about what moving to equitable institutions and systems requires. We can find our way to liberatory practices, those that allow for space to learn and be curious with grantee partners about what it’s going to really take to make progress on key issues. Funders can learn with, not simply from, their grantee partners.

A sector-wide practice around how to do this trust-based approach to learning and evaluation has begun to emerge. There are three learning areas that anchor this emergent work (download the one-page PDF to get a summary of all three):

  1. Learning for Accountability.
  2. Learning for Decision-Making.
  3. Learning for Long Term Impact.

Read the full article about a trust-based framework by Chera Reid, Ph.D. and Shaady Salehi at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.