Foundation Evaluation Practices Evolving, Study Finds

Two-thirds of U.S. and Canadian foundations do not have a dedicated evaluation unit or department, a report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy and Center for Evaluation Innovation finds.

Based on survey responses from senior evaluation or program staff at a hundred and twenty-seven U.S. and Canadian foundations with at least $10 million in annual grantmaking and members of CEI's Evaluation Roundtable, the report, Benchmarking Foundation Evaluation Practices (23 pages, PDF), found that only a third (34 percent) of the foundations surveyed had a dedicated evaluation unit or department separate from the program department, while roughly half had 1.5 full-time-equivalent staff or more dedicated to evaluation work. Not surprisingly, larger foundations were more likely to have a dedicated evaluation unit or department and more evaluation staff than midsize or smaller foundations.

The survey also found that among the most common evaluation activities — providing research or data to inform grantmaking strategy, evaluating initiatives or strategies, and refining grantmaking strategy — 51 percent of respondents involved in evaluating their grantmaking strategies said it was a top priority. The most common challenges mentioned by evaluation staff included having evaluations result in useful lessons for the field (83 percent), lessons for grantees (76 percent), and insights for the foundation (76 percent), while challenges that hampered program staff's use of evaluation findings included demands on staff time (91 percent), level of comfort interpreting the data (71 percent), and overall attitudes toward evaluation (50 percent). When asked which evaluation activities their foundations invested too little in, respondents cited disseminating findings externally (71 percent), improving grantee capacity for data collection and/or evaluation (69 percent), and facilitating learning processes with grantees and other stakeholders (58 percent).

Looking to the future, evaluation staff expressed hope that foundations would become more strategic in the way they plan for and design evaluations, more proactive about using evaluation data in decision making and to improve practice, and more transparent about and willing to share their evaluation findings with external audiences.

"While there is no one right way to structure and scope evaluation at foundations," said Julia Coffman, director of CEI and co-author of the report, "our benchmarking data offer a good sense of how the philanthropic sector is currently positioning evaluation and where evaluation staff are focusing their attention."

"CEP and CEI Partner to Release New Comprehensive Review of Foundation Evaluation Practices." Center for Effective Philanthropy Press Release 09/20/2016.