Grantmakers’ yardstick

Assessment helps grantors, grantees.

By Debra A. Felix

To be good stewards of our grants, shouldn’t we know if our funding is accomplishing something?

At the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we decided to do an empirical study to determine if our K-12 science-education funding was meeting stated goals.

After years of receiving reports from our grantees that gleefully announced results such as, “Nearly 85 percent of the participants in our program said they enjoyed it,” we conducted a deeper analysis of the outcomes of a four-year science-education initiative, begun in 1999.

In that year, $12.6 million was awarded to 35 medical schools, biomedical-research institutions, teaching hospitals and academic health centers, with individual grants ranging from $225,000 to $500,000.

The results of that study and the survey instrument used to conduct it were published in the September 2004 issue of the online journal Cell Biology Education.

The purpose of these grants was to encourage science-rich institutions to share their knowledge and resources with teachers and students to promote the understanding and appreciation of science to people of all ages.

The programs carried out by the 35 grantees were targeted to students, their parents or caregivers, and teachers from preschool through 12th grade.

We chose as a control group the 50 institutions that were closest to, but just below, the funding cutoff in the final stage of the same competition.

The findings of the study enabled us to fine-tune an instrument to help future grantees collect meaningful outcomes data.

In addition, we now actively teach grantees how to better evaluate their programs by providing evaluation training, site visits to peer programs to compare evaluation methods, access to the services of a professional evaluator for guidance and technical assistance, and the dedicated time necessary to focus on and reassess program evaluation activities.

Clearly, an understanding of what makes for successful programs is an important guide to us for future funding decisions.

Not only can we choose winners but, by making the results public, we can help others develop new and effective programs.

To me, that’s good grants management, based on good assessment.

Debra A. Felix is a program officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.

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