What happens when you bring together an equal number of grant makers and grant recipients, to engage as peers in a reflective dialogue about nonprofit data and evaluation?

Tech Networks of Boston, (with TSNE MissionWorks and Essential Partners acting as co-hosts) was able to do that it in three structured dialogue sessions; the participants were able to craft unique insights, relationships, and proposed best practices as a result.

While we were able to capture many pages of raw notes, and I was able to distill them down to a more succinct list of recommendations, I'd like to focus on only five of them here.

  • Grant makers can help by factoring in the nonprofit organization’s size, capacity, and budget – making sure that the demand for data and evaluation is commensurate.
  • Nonprofit grant recipients can help grant makers by engaging in a quantitative analysis of their operations and capacity, and then sharing this information with funders.

In speaking with many grant makers and nonprofit leaders, I have become aware that very few in either contingent can stipulate how many dollars, person-hours, or other resources it takes to deliver a specific programmatic outcome.  Even fewer can estimate the cost of collecting, analyzing, and reporting an outcome.  Thus, it is very difficult for funders to gauge whether their requests for outcomes measurement and evaluation are feasible.  It will be helpful for nonprofit organizations to undertake these quantitative analyses and then speak candidly with prospective funders about financial support for the reporting that they are asked to do.

Both groups can help by taking these actions:

  • Talking frankly about how power dynamics affect their relationships.

In our dialogue series, this need was so strongly articulated that we decided to devote an entire session to enabling grant makers and nonprofit grant recipients to listen to each other's thoughts and feelings about the power dynamics that they have experienced.  Employing the reflective structured dialogue model and the skills of seasoned facilitators, we were able to create a safe space for candor about this very uncomfortable topic.  This is a very good first step in enabling each group to understand the pressures, fears, and (in some cases) privileges under which the other group is operating.

  • Engaging in self-scrutiny about how factors such as race and class affect how data is collected, categorized, analyzed, and reported.

Every human being sees the world through the lens of his/her/their own experience, and that experience is influenced by categories such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identify, class, regional origin, language group, and education.  As a result, every organization makes assumptions about programmatic data and evaluation that are strongly influenced by the world view of its decision makers.  There may be a disconnect between the assumptions and expectations of a grant maker and a nonprofit grant recipient when a program is funded, and even more incongruities discovered when the views of those who will be served are taken into consideration. So often, we tacitly assume that any reasonable person would see a situation as we do, when in fact persons who belong to other categories have valuable contributions to make in analyzing assumptions and calculating the best interests of other parties.

Grant makers and nonprofit professionals are sometimes in the position of relatively privileged persons acting as benevolent patrons to communities, families, and individuals who have needs that are unmet.  Fortunately, we are now seeing a shift among many professionals in the sector to an emphasis on justice, equity, and inclusion.  With this shift comes an opportunity to include many more stakeholders in decisions about goals for programs, as well as in decisions about how success will be defined and then measured.  Community-based participatory research is a promising model for including stakeholders not only in the planning but the execution of outcomes measurement and evaluation.

Let's return to the question of what happens when you bring together equal numbers of grant makers and nonprofit profit grant recipients to engage in dialogue about nonprofit data and evaluation.  My answer is that they speak eloquently – sometimes heartbreakingly – about capacity, justice, power, and inclusion.  They relish a safe space in which they can listen and talk as peers.  They are extremely creative in brainstorming about how they can work together more collaboratively and effectively.

We are very grateful for the participants that provided invaluable feedback to help craft the best practices mentioned here.  I hope that these notes from the field will encourage grantors and grantees to create national and regional dialogues of their own.

About the Author(s)

Deborah Elizabeth Finn Senior Strategist Tech Networks of Boston View Bio

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