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Learning and Evaluation

By shifting our understanding of evaluation so that it’s focused squarely on improvement and engaging grantees and other partners, we can learn in ways that yield rewards for everyone involved.

3 out of 4

Grantmakers (76%) say they evaluate their work.

Evaluation gives us an opportunity to take stock of what’s working. But when we adopt a learning mindset focused on continuously improving, we can use evaluation for more than just an accountability measure. Instead, we can focus on what we can learn from the data, push ourselves to experiment and deliberately look at failures as opportunities to grow.

Learning can happen in any number of ways, but what’s important to remember is that our evaluation work is only successful if nonprofits are able to learn from it as well. We should therefore only ask for evaluation data we’re going to use and strive to have evaluations be as useful to nonprofits for their own decision-making as it is for us. This requires us to share the power of evaluation, and look to nonprofits and communities to help define success, determine what data to measure and say what data means. That’s why it’s important that we work to build nonprofit evaluative capacity. By shifting our understanding of evaluation so that it’s focused squarely on improvement and engaging grantees and other partners, we can learn in ways that yield rewards for everyone involved.

“We want to create a place where people at all levels of the organization have opportunities to reflect with others about their work and to apply what they’re learning so they can do a better job.”

Amanuel Melles, former director of programs and capacity building, United Way Toronto

Helpful Tools and Resources

Stay informed of the emerging trends and promising practices from the field of philanthropy through GEO’s publications and research.

  • GEOList Members Only

    GEOList Summary: How Does Your Foundation and Board Learn From Grants?

    I am interested in knowing what other foundations do in terms of learning from individual grants, especially as it relates to the board.

    • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
    • August 2017
  • GEOList Members Only

    GEOList Summary: "Annual Reports" or Summaries of an Organization's Learnings

    We are looking for examples of great “annual reports” OR any self-reflective summary of an organization’s learnings in ANY media format. We’re curious to see how other foundations have approached both the content and mode of sharing that content with partners.

    • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
    • August 2017
  • Toolkit Members Only

    Trustees as Partners in Learning and Evaluation

    This piece is written to help foundation trustees navigate their own role in relationship to learning and evaluation and to explore how boards can help build a culture that embraces learning.

    • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
    • July 2017
  • GEOList Members Only

    GEOList Summary: Request for Grant Application and Evaluation Examples

    Our local grant making collaborative, the Washtenaw Coordinated Funders, are examining our grant making practices and tools. Based on feedback from our grantees, we know our grant application could be improved. We also suspect that we aren’t asking the most powerful questions to understand the extent to which a grantee can advance on our priorities. Racial inequity and poverty are two important lenses through which we evaluate a grantee’s proposed work. I would welcome any examples of grant applications and evaluation matrixes that partners in the GEO network use.

    • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
    • July 2017
  • GEOList Members Only

    GEOList Summary: Evaluation Contract Language

    We are interested in updating language in our evaluation contracts related to ownership of the knowledge generated through that evaluation work. Many of the entities who partner with us to evaluate our work are researchers on the topic we are evaluating (for instance, the evaluation partner for our Healthy Schools Healthy Communities work has a robust portfolio of experience publishing on conditions for promoting healthy behaviors in communities). As such, we view the evaluation as mutually beneficial, giving the Foundation information on the effectiveness of our work but also allowing our work to contribute to the broader field of knowledge and research on a particular topic. We recently realized that standard language in our contracts is at odds with the idea that our evaluations are not simply contracts for services for the Foundation but contributing to the broader field of research. Specifically, our contract language states that the evaluator must get permission and approval from the Foundation prior to publishing or presenting on our work. There are certain scenarios where this makes sense but, more and more, we are coming across scenarios where we want to give other entities freedom to work with our information. As a Foundation we are committed to sharing what has and hasn’t been effective in our work, contributing knowledge gained to the broader field. That said, there is concern from a legal perspective of handing over all permissions to publish using data and information generated from our work. I am interested to know if anyone has created contract language that acknowledges the mutually beneficial nature of this work, protecting the Foundation’s interest and giving research partners the freedom necessary to pursue their work.

    • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
    • July 2017

Upcoming Events

  • Conferences

    2018 National Conference

    The 2018 National Conference will provide participants with the information, connections and experiences to continue improving and pursuing smarter grantmaking practices that positively impact nonprofit effectiveness.

    • April 2018
  • Remote Learning and Webinars

    The Learning Mindset

    This six-session series gives program staff and new learning staff an opportunity to gain insight from seasoned evaluation practitioners in the GEO community.

    • August 2017

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Perspectives on Philanthropy

Interesting thoughts and ideas circulating in the GEO community.

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    Innovation Network

    State of Evaluation 2016

    State of Evaluation 2016 contains exciting updates, three special topics (evaluation storage systems and software, big data, and pay for performance), and illuminating findings for everyone who works with nonprofit organizations.

  • Article Photo

    Bruner Foundation

    Effectiveness Initiatives

    To quote author Gail Berkowitz, this web portal "is a helpful one stop site for resources for funders and their partners on evaluation capacity building and evaluative thinking."

  • A strategic approach to evaluation requires a clear vision for evaluation; a culture that fosters individual, group, and organizational learning; a compelling and cogent strategy; coordinated evaluation and learning activities; and a supportive environment.

Related Topics


No matter the outcome we are working toward, our institutions and systems were built to advantage some but not all — and data shows that inequities persist to this day. These inequities become more apparent when we take race into account.

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Capacity Building

Grantmakers who put the work in to provide effective capacity-building support help ensure that nonprofits have what they need to deliver on their missions over the long term.

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Nichole Hoeflich


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