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Jane Wales

Jane Wales

Posted: September 13, 2010 02:25 PM

A century ago, the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the Rockefeller Foundation, helped eradicate hookworm in the American South. Today, the ClimateWorks Foundation, financed by a funding collaborative, is helping to catalyze measurable reductions in carbon emissions.

What these efforts have in common, according to venture philanthropist Mario Morino, is a focus on outcomes-based practices that produce "meaningful, measurable, sustainable benefit for those served." Morino argues in a four-part series of online essays that too many in the sector focus on the how of measurement without enough thought as to what they are measuring and why. Keeping the end goal in sight is key: to help inform efforts to achieve real social impact, using the right information to guide action.

The Aspen Philanthropy Group (APG), 25 leaders in philanthropy, has come to a similar conclusion. Having identified a lack of alignment around approaches to measurement and evaluation (M&E) among grant-makers and between grant-makers and grant-seekers, the group charged the Aspen Institute's Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation with conducting a year long review. The Program found that grant-makers and their grantees tend to gather as much data as possible in search of evidence of impact. This approach has often resulted in expensive evaluations that are onerous for grantees and have often failed to yield the data needed in the time required for informed decision-making. As a result, the data have gone unused. The Aspen program recommended instead a "decision-based" approach to M&E, characterized by:

• A shared purpose of informing decision-making and enabling continuous learning;
• A shared expectation that data will be gathered in a timely fashion and in a manner that does not place an undue burden on grantees; and
• A shared commitment to placing data gathered in the public domain so as to advance field-wide learning.

The Program plans to publish an edited e-volume on the topic, with chapters written by many of the foundation presidents, who are Aspen Philanthropy Group members. It will list open source tools for grant-makers developed by expert organizations ranging from McKinsey & Company to Grant-makers for Effective Organizations (GEO), the Foundation Center to FSG Social Impact Advisors and Donor Edge. Most importantly, it will partner with like-minded organizations, donor advisors and donor educators who have relationships of trust with philanthropists who wish to apply M&E principles to their grant-making strategies. The purpose of this consensus-building effort is to move away from evaluations as audits to evaluations as sources of usable knowledge, thus enhancing the efficacy of the sector as a whole.

Morino, of Venture Philanthropy Partners, shares the goal of advancing a norm. His purpose: to take outcomes measurement "from being the nonprofit world's most anxiety-provoking topic to one of its most powerful forces." Large, private foundations are natural catalysts, he says. He's also encouraged by the creation and work of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

His proposal is to create a high-profile, cross-sector coalition to offer the philanthropic equivalent of the technology industry's "missionary sell" to push for change - "ferreting out, supporting and sharing the results of...early adopters." He goes so far as to name names, recommending people like Rajat Gupta, formerly of McKinsey & Company; Bridgespan's Tom Tierney; Michael Bailin, formerly of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; author/consultant Jim Collins; and the Corporation for National Service's Steven Goldsmith. He would likely find many other leaders and converts including remarkable grass-roots collaboratives of grantees and their funders in various issue domains, such as Strive or the Cultural Data Project. Each has been successful in setting standards for their field and would add to any consensus building effort. Morino's purposes, and those of the APG, will be well served by the combination of a bottom-up as well as a top-down effort.

Marino calls on this "Dream Team" to lead a "Doing Good Better" initiative to, among other things, build knowledge about managing to outcomes through an open-source repository of tools, best practices, profiles and the like; provide strategic and tactical help through better recruitment and identification of qualified consultants; and generate greater support from funders of general operating costs, which are needed to develop the necessary technology systems and human processes.

There is a remarkable array of open source tools for strategic philanthropists seeking measure outcomes, for which a roadmap would be handy. And a normative shift is in the making. A long-time missionary for measuring outcomes, Marino's voice is essential and his recommendations are wise.