Over the last three years, as facilitator of a Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) sponsored Community of Practice (CoP) on the evaluation of place-based grantmaking initiatives, I had a bird’s eye view of these activities in various forms and at various stages. The members of this CoP hailed from private foundations funding multiple sites, private funders embedded in specific communities, community foundations, and federal funding agencies, including HUD, the Department of Education, and the EPA. The community efforts they funded and supported also varied widely, emphasizing community capacity, health outcomes, educational outcomes, environmental changes, and improvements to community safety and infrastructure. While CoP members came together with the evaluation of their place-based work as a primary concern, their organizational roles were diverse, including evaluators, directors of evaluation, program staff, and executives.
Despite the group’s diversity, the shared “domain” of the CoP was a wicked question for any funder engaged in complex community grantmaking: How do we most effectively evaluate place-based and community change grantmaking efforts? And while our face-to-face meetings and webinar discussions with peers and external experts generated many questions, participants found it extremely useful to hear how others tackled similar challenges. The group wanted to leave behind a resource to help other funders think through the many choices and challenges that evaluating this work presents. A new publication, Evaluating Community Change: A Framework For Grantmakers, now available as an e-publication from GEO, reflects a high-level look at how grantmakers seek to learn from and assess the performance and impact of place-based, or comprehensive community change, initiatives.
You probably know how hard it is to talk about even one systems-change initiative and its evaluation, so you can imagine the difficulties in trying to untangle 20 of them! At one point, using the timeless technology of post-it-notes and chart paper, we mapped the indicators that each initiative had identified for tracking and measurement, grouping them into common categories and noticing areas of less concentrated activity. For example, we noticed that few funders tracked indicators of sustainability, although they hoped that community changes would be sustained. We suspected that something useful could come from this exercise – not only for the CoP, but for other funders engaged in similar work – so we asked the research and evaluation firm, Community Science, to examine the patterns that emerged, building in knowledge from their own experience and from field literature. Ultimately, this became Evaluating Community Change: A Framework For Grantmakers. Along with an earlier publication, Building Community Capacity for Participation in Evaluation, the Evaluating Community Change Framework is an attempt to distill and share part of what we learned over the course of the CoP.
How to Use
Grantmakers have many opportunities to reflect and learn over the course of a community change effort – and ideally, they do so collaboratively with grantee organizations and community stakeholders. This framework is necessarily only a two-dimensional snapshot of the dynamic and complex work of community change. It depicts a linear progression, and seems to have a predictable flow, which we all know is unlikely to occur in the real world. It also begins with the funder as the point of departure, and focuses on funder contributions, although in reality, there are many factors in play, and the funder is just one actor in the system.
Despite those caveats, we’re excited about the potential of the framework to strengthen place-based community change grantmaking and its evaluation. You might think of it as an idealized and generalized roadmap for place-based and community change initiatives – not a set of instructions for any particular effort. It illustrates the categories or buckets that a place-based funder might evaluate, and offers examples of the indicators and measures a funder might consider within each category.
The framework can serve as a tool to inform the thoughtful planning of an initiative, design an evaluation, promote coordinated action, and support learning by funders and other stakeholders. It can stimulate discussion and consensus among community members (funders, public officials, practitioners, affected residents, the business community, and others) and surface places where stakeholders may expect unrealistic results. Perhaps most importantly, it can help create a shared language for all concerned to discuss the conditions an initiative addresses, the implementation challenges it encounters, and the results it seeks to achieve.
We hope you’ll check out the framework and let us know of your experiences evaluating your place-based grantmaking. It is complex work, but starting conversations with a shared framework can help us learn more from each other and make more sense of it all.