Who Shapes the Evaluation and Learning Ecosystem? Organizational Culture and Trust-Based Philanthropy

Andrew Taylor and Ben Liadsky, Taylor Newberry Consulting
Julia Coffman and Albertina Lopez, Center for Evaluation Innovation

In this blog post, we share some thoughts on a theoretical frame that emerged during our discussions about evaluation and learning in philanthropy. This blog post follows up our recent publication: Approaches to Learning Amid Crises: Reflections from Philanthropy.

The COVID-19 crisis and protests in support of the rights of racialized people have triggered new discussions on how foundations interact with those in their network (their grantees, other community organizations, consultants, and other funders, for example). Many foundations are exploring approaches that are more relationship-driven, focused on building trust and working collaboratively. In our work, we have been thinking about how this shift is reflected in the process of evaluation and learning. Within collaborative, trust-based approaches to philanthropy, who asks the questions, what types of knowledge get valued, and how does that affect how foundations learn and strategize together with partners? What would it mean for foundations to approach their evaluation, learning and sense-making process in a more truly collaborative way? What would be different? 

As we’ve been having these conversations, we have often thought of the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner. In the 1960s and 70s, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory radically changed the way we think about healthy child development. It provided a frame for exploring the ways in which social and political context shape child development, using a series of concentric circles. Changes in social policy, societal attitudes, or workplace policies (which take place in what Bronenbrenner called the “macrosystem” and ‘exosystem”) often constrain or enable what actors in the microsystem (i.e., the family and the community) can do to promote healthy child development. This happens even though these policies may not have an obvious connection to child development. A strong family with excellent parenting skills, Bronfenbrenner argued, will face longer odds in raising a healthy child if they must live in a neighbourhood with crumbling infrastructure, far from extended family, as a result of the intergenerational effects of systemic racism perpetuated through (for example) zoning bylaws.  

Ecological systems theory is a great way to map out the implications of the complex dynamics at play within ecosystems. Many important social initiatives of the late 20th century (Head Start is a famous example), heavily influenced by Bronfenbrenner’s theories, were designed explicitly to disrupt and realign the interactions between and within layers of this ecosystem.  

As we explore more collaborative, trust-based approaches to philanthropic work, a similar way of thinking may be helpful. We’ve been using a diagram inspired by the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner to depict the ecosystem within which foundations work. In this version, we’ve collapsed the individual and the microsystem into one circle representing the people and communities that are often the ultimate intended beneficiaries of non-profit and philanthropic work: historically marginalized people and communities. We’ve positioned nonprofit organizations, grassroots community groups, and others who work directly with marginalized people and communities within the meso system, just as Bronfenbrenner did.

Historically, foundations have functioned mostly as an actor in the middle or “exo” layer of our version of the ecosystem. They have played an important role by helping to support groups in the “meso” layer to take direct action through programming and services to address issues affecting people and communities. They are also constrained and enabled by the outer or “macro” layer, made up of government, donors, and the broader society. They frequently interact with other actors who provide support to front-line organizations (i.e., who also work in the meso layer) like cross-sectoral planning tables or evaluators. Foundations have formed a system or network that sets official policies and unofficial norms that constrain or enable actors in the meso system. 

This depiction is of course an oversimplification. Governments provide direct service to community members as well as set policy.  Members of marginalized communities often run nonprofit agencies or grassroots groups. However, we think it still highlights a few important points about how learning and evaluation work in the philanthropic world. 

To better understand the factors that can enable or inhibit organizational learning and the types of information or data that get valued, let’s look at how information is communicated across levels in an ecosystem.

In more hierarchical systems, decision-making power tends to tilt toward the outer layers in our graphic and away from the actors who are most directly connected to the issues. Those who are most connected to the issues in the communities where they live or serve have the least amount of resources and decision-making authority, but they bear the brunt of responsibility for data collection. Often, evaluation efforts focus on a narrow range of operational and programmatic questions that have been chosen by actors in the exo or macro system layers. Communications and information (including evaluation findings) tends to flow in one direction: from the inner layer outwards. Opportunities to share insights and ideas with other actors informally are reduced and historic power imbalances are reinforced. As a result, these systems learn and change very slowly and incrementally. Decisions made at the meso and macro levels constrain and limit what organizations working on the front line can do, and how quickly they can learn and adapt. Front-line nonprofits and other groups taking action are constrained in their ability to collaborate with one another.

Collaborative approaches, in contrast, are intended to cultivate a healthy learning ecosystem. Different groups and individuals at all levels regularly interact and innovate in a fluid way. Trust, collaboration, and inclusion are celebrated and power is distributed. The actors involved are comfortable with ambiguity, and they are willing to consider the broader systemic context (i.e., they are able to think not only about their role or contribution, but also about what else is happening beyond their needs or focus area). There are lots of opportunities for actors in different locations to bump into one another, exchange information, and take responsibility for different actions as needed at various levels of a system. The boundaries between the micro, meso, exo and macro levels are more permeable and less sharply defined. Foundations may become more involved in direct action (by advocating for policy change, or convening community coalitions, for example). People with lived experience may sit at decision-making tables. Grassroots groups may work more closely with established nonprofit organizations, and different kinds of groups may have access to philanthropic resources. Lots of different players formulate learning questions, generate data, and share insights. 

By thinking more broadly about the interconnections of actors and how each works to address complex issues in different ways, foundations can position their work to more consciously and proactively seek ways to engage, listen, and learn from others to take action. 

For instance, the Equitable Evaluation Initiative has written about the importance of evaluation as a tool to be used for promoting equity rather than as a tool to reinforce existing power structures. 

By mapping our approach to learning onto the ecosystem within which we work, we can better understand who is setting the learning agenda, whose voices are heard, and whose are overlooked. If this is well-understood by foundations, they may prioritize and take steps to ensure that trust, collaboration, and inclusion are built into their processes both within their own walls as well as in their interaction with others.   

Reflection activity

If you were to map the flow of evidence and insight in your particular slice of the social change ecosystem, how would it look? 

Which layer of the ecosystem do you belong to?

How close are you to the issue(s) you are trying to address? In other words, in terms of your organization’s ability to influence change on its own, how influential is your organization? Who else do you rely on or work with to influence change?

Who do you connect with in the ecosystem and how often? How were some of these relationships formed? When was the last time you connected with other actors? Who sets the agenda for these conversations? Would you define these relationships as strong or weak?

How is your evaluation process and learning process informed by other actors in your ecosystem? 

What kind of power and privilege do you have in the ecosystem? How can you use it to help the ecosystem as a whole to thrive?

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