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Making evaluation work

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Mary Mountcastle

Mary Mountcastle

Mary Mountcastle

Accountability and evaluation are important concepts in the toolbox of grantmaking. 

Basically, we all want to know if our grants are helping to achieve the outcomes we supported in a reasonable timeframe. 

This helps us ensure we fulfill our role as good stewards of the funds entrusted to us by the public, because of tax benefits bestowed, or by an original donor. 

Independence and the lack of accountability are part of the beauty of the field because we can take on difficult or unpopular issues, but we have to balance that with being good stewards.

I fear that an overemphasis on evaluation, venture philanthropy or effective grantmaking will hamper grants to smaller or grassroots organizations that do great work, but that may not have the capacity for fancy evaluations. 

Or we may avoid taking on hard issues that must be dealt with over time, such as race relations, rural economic development or public policy.  And finally, we don’t want to put more burdens on nonprofits that already are stretched.

So, how can we assess the impact of our grantmaking in a way that’s helpful to our nonprofit partners?

First, fit the scale of the assessment to the level of the relationship. 

Let’s face it.  Whether you’re a big foundation, a member of a giving circle or an individual donor, you have different interests and relationships with your grantees. 

Some grants may be one-time due to a certain set of circumstances – a grant to an important community institution or a relationship with another funder.  Other grants may be too small or not in a primary interest area.

Both types don’t warrant much more than fulfilling your fiduciary responsibility through a simple letter that documents how they spent the funds. Don’t make them jump through lots of reporting hoops.

A final category are grants that truly fit a set of strategic grantmaking objectives where you intend to keep investing and want to learn as you go along.

This is where the greatest amount of time and resources should be invested in assessing what is working and what is being learned. 

You can assess grantees individually or by cluster, and you should even think about using other tools such as a convening to enhance what you and your grantees learn.

In any of these cases, the scale of the assessment should fit the size of the grant.  And, my apologies to the academics out there, evaluation does not have to be expensive or complicated to be effective. 

In the beginning, get clear on expectations and objectives for the grant, as well as benchmarks for measuring progress, so the assessment is productive. 

In the end, we want to know what the grantee is hoping to achieve and how they will know whether they are making progress, because learning for the grantee and the funder is the key objective.


Mary Mountcastle is a long-time trustee of several family foundations and sometime student of philanthropy.

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