Today marks the beginning of TNC’s 10th anniversary year. This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on our practice and our mission.
At TNC, we choose partners carefully. Whether you are a grantmaker, a frontline service provider, a local government department, a national network or a capacity builder, we work with you because you are on the front lines of our collective efforts to create a better world. You amaze us, you teach us, and you impress us.
Over the last ten years, our purpose has always been to help the organizations we serve become stronger and more resilient. We are very aware that the resources you choose to spend working with us on research, evaluation, coaching, or systems design are resources that might otherwise have been used to provide important services, and so we work as hard as we can to make sure that this investment is worthwhile for you. For example, we try to help you cultivate deeper connections to the communities you serve, improve the quality of your programming, or increase the success rate of your grant proposals.
For us, the COVID crisis has raised the stakes of our work. Perhaps, more accurately, it has underscored just how high the stakes have always been. In the last few months, we have seen our partners read the changing context with incredible insight and empathy, and pivot with astonishing speed. We have seen you design new programs and strategies and develop surprising new partnerships. We have seen you cast aside traditional notions of turf and protocol, and dive in wherever you are needed. We have watched you elevate and amplify the voices of those who have been oppressed, to make sure that our path to recovery is inclusive of all. In short, you have shown us anew that you are absolutely essential to the functioning of a just and equitable society.
This crisis has also highlighted your vulnerability. Some of you have had to lay off staff, close programs, or pause projects. We have seen grassroots organizations thrust into risky situations without the support they need to ensure their safety, we have seen staff members and volunteers exhausted by the volume of the work and the depth of need, and we have seen community, place-based organizations wonder if they will have the resources to reopen when that time comes. We have thought of you as we have heard leaders discuss “recovery” in a way that frames success too narrowly. Some of you have lost your own jobs.
What you have been able to achieve in spite of these challenges is amazing. For us, finding ways that we can help you become stronger and more resilient seems more important than ever. We know that we must follow the example you have set by pivoting into new ways of working and lending a hand where it is needed. We are listening carefully to discern what we are being called to do in this moment. Here are a few of the things we have been hearing.
- “Help Us Share What We Know.” In a few of our projects, we’ve put large-scale data collection on hold as organizations focus their efforts on responding to the crisis. Instead, we have focused on getting the data we already have into a form that groups can use to raise funds or connect to partners in new ways. Drawing on whatever data is available, we have created short, readable fact sheets and shared them quickly with our partners. Often, these summaries focus very much on describing the action that is being taken in the present as well as the impact of past work. Where possible, we have tried to highlight areas where data collected before the crisis remains relevant and useful now.
- “Help Us Evaluate in Real Time.” We are developing quick, simple and non-intrusive ways to help our partners begin to reflect on their experience in responding to the crisis. This work has involved facilitating online discussions, drafting questions for others to use in meetings, and conducting key informant interviews online. It has also involved building theories of change for this new type of work, and planning for a time when more systematic data collection will be needed. This work has often involved creative use of online collaboration tools, like zoom breakout rooms.
- “Help Us Make Time for Reflection.” Many of the organizations we serve are arranging short, frequent online check-ins. While much of the discussion is focused on day-to-day operational challenges, we have been invited to participate in some of these discussions in order to make space for reflection and learning. Given that our context is unfamiliar and changing quickly, it is important for teams to take the time to understand it, and to process their personal reactions. Some of our partners are already seeing the potential to sustain some of the innovations they developed in recent weeks beyond this crisis, and they are keen to begin clarifying and formalizing these ideas.
If we had to distill the call we are hearing from you and from others in our network right now into a single sentence, it might be this one: “Get to the point.” While I think people still value TNC’s capacity to gather and analyze data in a careful, thorough way, right now they are trusting us to do that work behind the scenes, without demanding too much of them, and to come back with simple, timely, useful bottom line messages. We are inspired to see that your commitment to learning from evidence, working with your communities and reflecting on your practice in a critical way is undiminished. Once, we might have set aside a morning to help you through this kind of conversation. It would have been booked several weeks ahead, and we would have taken care to craft an agenda together. Now, all you’ve got is 20 minutes, the conversation should probably happen tomorrow, and you cannot promise that other pressing problems will not impinge. We get that. We believe it can be done. We’ve got a few ideas. We know you do too. We are learning new ones every week.
For more reflections on how evaluators and other capacity builders are responding to the pandemic, check out these links from some of our colleagues:
- Cameron Norman of CENSE reflecting on the link between evaluation and innovation.
- Sonia Taddy-Sandino and Jennifer Garcia of Engage R+D on some of the ways they are listening and learning
- Rich Harwood of The Harwood Institute on the transformative power of hope when responding to crisis.