This issue of GMNsight is co-produced by GEO (Grantmakers for Effective Organizations)
Early on, many of my organization’s funders asked, “Do you track the students you reengage and re-enroll in high school until the time they graduate” In 2009, Colorado Youth for a Change was about four years into existence, had re-enrolled close to 1,000 students and had 25 staff, but lacked the staff, financial and data collection capacity to track to this outcome. We had always tracked data on our outcomes with students but did not consistently track through graduation unless it happened in that one program year. We knew it was important because it would allow us to gauge our organizational impact and graduation was our ultimate goal, but each time we were asked the question we said in return, “We would love to. Would you help fund us to build that capacity?” We were always told, “No, we only support programs.”
I had the privilege to attend GEO’s 2015 Learning Conference as a nonprofit presenter, speaking alongside two of my organization’s key funding partners, Mile High United Way and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. In our presentation, “Live with the Performance Management Mavens,” we shared findings from a recent publication of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Room for Improvement: Foundations support for Non-Profit Performance Assessment, that suggest that CYC’s unsuccessful pursuit of funding for evaluation and learning activities is commonplace. CEP found that more than three-fourths (77 percent) of nonprofits do not receive support from funders to do performance management work, while 62 percent would like support from funders to do this work. And from the Innovation Network’s 2012 State of Evaluation: only 28 percent of nonprofits have the capacity to engage in meaningful evaluation practice. As I explained these statistics, I was reminded of those early days, of how fortunate CYC is to have begun our journey to become a learning organization, and of how we are finally working with funders who help support this work.
Three years ago CYC entered into a completely new funding relationship when we were selected into the inaugural cohort of PropelNext, an initiative of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The goal of PropelNext is to help grantees refine their program models and enhance their use of data for learning, self-evaluation and ongoing improvement. The purpose of this intensive program is to help grantees develop the knowledge, skills and tools they need to enhance their program models, set strategic priorities, improve decision making, further measure performance and impact, and use evidence to increase public and private support for their work.
Through PropelNext, we received everything that we were missing in those early years — financial support, performance management system support and support in organizational capacity building. With EMCF’s assistance, we have enhanced our performance management system to one where we can now track students through graduation. EMCF’s three year funding commitment marked the beginning of CYC truly working toward internal and eventual external evaluation practice. Beyond program model refinement and theory of change development, we have begun integrating learning across the organization through the development of learning agendas and data teams. These teams help us ask the key strategic questions currently facing the organization and then use programmatic data to begin to answer them. The greatest benefit we received was three years of partnership in learning and a safe place to explore what was working and what was not.
At the conference I was surprised and excited to see the amount of funders in the room who support learning and evaluation. Sitting around the table with these funders was enlightening. What struck me as I listened to this diverse group of funders is how they were grappling with the same issues we have been tackling at CYC over the last few years — Who are we targeting? What are the outcomes we are hoping to achieve? How do we measure those outcomes?
But during our presentation, many grantmakers in the room expressed that it would be difficult for them to have the capacity to facilitate an initiative such as PropelNext or the Performance Collaborative of Mile High United Way, a program that offers organizations opportunities to learn how to use data as a way to improve. These programs are examples of how successful a strong commitment to supporting grantee capacity for evaluation can be. But from the perspective of a nonprofit, learning and evaluating with grantees can mean many things at many levels. It is financially supporting performance management capacity. It is bringing performance management expertise to the grantee’s organization to help build internal capacity. It is finding ways, when possible, to not require grantees to fit into very specific outcome measures when they have their own clear outcomes that still align with yours. It is being as open and vulnerable as a funder as you are asking your grantees to be as you evaluate your own internal practices. And it is co-creating a partnership that leads to the change we are all trying to achieve through the alignment of our missions.
What I have learned over the last three years of working with funders who are true partners in learning and evaluation is how crucial it is to be willing to take a leap of faith and to see the funding relationship as a true collaboration. The experience is humbling and vulnerable. Not only do you share the successes, but you share the bumps along the way in the name of learning, and for the ultimate impact you are trying to achieve. It is an investment in better services, quality programs and clear outcomes for both funder and grantee. In our case, it is an investment in the lives of young people who deserve that extra care and attention to help them achieve educational success.