Evaluation Isn’t the End Game

Everyone knows that program evaluation is supposed to be a good thing. But more often than not, it becomes an afterthought that frustrates grantees, gets pushed to the side by foundation staff, and brings the boards of both begging for fewer charts.

Here are common concerns I’ve heard when people talk about evaluation:

  • What a burden on grantees and program staff!
  • When can we review all this data?
  • What does it all mean?

In my time at the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, we’ve brainstormed theories of change; developed long-term outcomes with internal and external measures; built strategies around clusters of grants; and created data collection systems and dashboards.

Over time we’ve learned that evaluation is an ongoing process, not a one-time event, and it takes time to refine metrics and do analysis. We’ve tried to structure it in a way that relieves the concerns bulleted above:

  • First, we identified which metrics are products of our work, and which are related to grantees’ work. Then we categorized those as qualitative or quantitative. Organizing in this fashion clarified what information to collect and what role we played.
  • To reduce the burden on grantees, we collect information right from our application and report forms. For ourselves, we also identified external groups that already collect data specific to our program areas, such as the Cultural Data Project and the National Conservation Easement Database.
  • Reviewing grantees’ reports is now part of our proposal review process, so it helps inform the next cycle of grantmaking and doesn’t get pushed aside.
  • Moving from three grant cycles to two has allowed us time between our November and March meetings to reflect on a year of our grantees’ achievements and the impact of our grantmaking. We use that analysis to update our board and make improvements or mid-course corrections.

Grants Managers Network resources such as Project Streamline Guides and Assessing the How of Grantmaking helped guide discussions as we developed new application and reporting forms, and made decisions about the metrics that are most important to our work.

By making evaluation less burdensome and building it into our grant review process, we can better help grantees reach their goals, thereby advancing our mission.


susan clark evaluation graphic

Susan Clark

Susan has been Grants Manager since 2005 at the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, which supports land conservation, artistic vitality, and regionally significant collections in the Chicago region and Lowcountry of South Carolina Lowcountry (gddf.org). She has a keen interest in how data can be used to refine strategy and advance philanthropy and the non-profit sector. An active member of GMN, she served as co-chair of the Midwest Chapter from 2009 to 2012. You can follow her on Twitter @sbc_at_work.