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January 15, 2010

How can philanthropy and government partner to help nonprofits marshal evidence of their programs’ effectiveness?
By setting high evidentiary standards and funding programs that meet them, government can create a powerful incentive for nonprofits to strengthen their evidence and invest in rigorous evaluation. Already the Obama Administration has advanced evidence-based policy in a number of commendable ways:

  • It established the Social Innovation Fund, in the words of Assistant to the President and Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes, to further “the President’s new governing philosophy: funding and investing in what works.”
  • After reviewing the federal budget and eliminating almost $17 billion supporting programs that did not deliver results, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag stated, “I am trying to put much more emphasis on evidence-based policy decisions here at OMB. Wherever possible, we should design new initiatives to build rigorous data about what works and then act on evidence that emerges—expanding approaches that work best, fine-tuning the ones that get mixed results, and shutting down those that are failing.”
  • The Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund translates this ideal into action by reserving its largest grants for programs “with a strong base of evidence,” smaller grants for those “with good evidence of their impact and … ready to improve their evidence base,” and the smallest for programs with high potential “whose impact should be studied further.”

Government can help an organization get ready for evaluation. It can do so directly by funding an evaluation or preparations for it, or indirectly by including enough overhead in its grants that a recipient can afford a robust performance tracking system or other enhancement of its infrastructure. But given the pressures and skill sets that exist at public agencies, government can go only so far. Philanthropy can play a crucial role in ensuring such readiness, because we can dedicate our resources and time to working with grantees, with fewer of the political constraints that weigh on public funders. We can also support individuals and organizations with appropriate skills, and can experiment with different ways to achieve readiness and evaluate evidence.
Working in tandem with government yet autonomously, some form of philanthropic initiative or intermediary might create:

  • a grantmaking program that helps organizations advance their evidence and organizational capacity;
  • a rating tool/framework for making a baseline assessment of programs and evaluating their progress periodically;
  • a technical assistance and capacity-building program in module form for training nonprofits in groups and individually; or
  • a “knowledge platform” available via a website and other communications vehicles that disseminates information to other nonprofits.

In areas like these, philanthropy has a strong comparative advantage—and we can help promising programs meet higher standards of proof so they can grow and make a greater impact on some of America’s most intractable social problems.
Monday’s post: Evidence and Evaluation: Getting from Promise to Proof.
Tuesday’s post: How Can an Organization Build Its Evidence Base?
Wednesday’s post: A Single Standard of Evidence?
Thursday’s post: The Value of Evaluation.

Nancy Roob