Food For Thought

Do Foundations Really Care About Outcomes and Evaluation?

Do Foundations Really Care About Outcomes and Evaluation?

A guest post from Prentice Zinn, Director, GMA Foundations

The conversation between nonprofit organizations and foundations about evaluation is stuck.  It is predictable and unimaginative. In a roundtable discussion about evaluation and the arts back in 2011, Abe Rybeck, of Theater Offensive once asked a group of funders in frustration, “Do funders really care about this stuff?”  His question underscored the deep disconnect between foundations and nonprofits about why evaluation matters, how it is helpful or not and the challenges of doing it in resource-scarce organizations.

I remember responding, “Hello no!” and getting a good laugh, but like most polite discussions between foundations and nonprofits, we never answered the most provocative question of the the day.

It kills me to leave such a big thorny question hanging in the wind, so the next day, I shot off my gut response to Abe’s big question.

Here is what I wrote:

Are funders faking the Big O?  (Outcomes and Evaluation)  O&E is in Chapter One in my funder handbook on how to BS a Nonprofit Organization.  If foundations really wanted to support the O&E work they would fund more of it and do it much more intelligently.

So after you make up a seven-tiered color spreadsheet for foundations using matrix algebra and holy incantations from a Harvard professor, you begin to realize that when funders natter on to you about outcomes they are saying many different things:

  1. Your story about what you want to accomplish and how you make a difference is fuzzy.
  2. Does your organization have a reflective practice that supports program development and does the “numbers+pictures+story” thing?
  3. What big questions are you asking about impact? Are you disciplined about getting answers?
  4.  Your program does not grab us, fit, match our biases, but we won’t tell you to your face.
  5. We like to critique your work (makes us feel smart) and our O&E line is like shooting fish in a barrel.
  6. We believe that with stronger outcomes, the world will finally give a damn about arts, culture, and young people because all we need is “proof”.
  7.  I haven’t taken the time to learn about your work so dumb it all down for me with something that fits my preconceptions, is not too challenging, and helps me tell your story to other people who are even further removed from your work.
  8. Please make your work neatly fit my foundation’s model and its outcomes.  Then I MAY fund you:  Arts and Health.  Arts and Education.  Arts and Violence.  Arts and Community Development.  Arts and Automobile Repair.  Arts and Three-Legged Pets.  Arts and Climate Change. Etc.
  9. You need evaluation to scale-up, replicate, translate, instigate, bloviate, etc.

Will funders fund it?  Nope, but we talk a lot of trash don’t we?  You can fume that foundations won’t fund it but, most of us aren’t funding your technology, human resource development, fundraising, capital, etc. either.  I’d give up if you base any of your organizational development work on what funders are willing to support.  That said, the artsy fartsy funders who get this at the local and national level will eat this stuff up.  There are also tricks for integrating it into your bread and butter program budgets.  You’ll have to buy me a beer to learn the secrets.


Recently, Katha Swaback, of RawArts remembered that discussion and asked me if things are any better in this awkward dance between foundations and nonprofit organizations?  I didn’t have a good answer.  Since 2011, there is more evidence suggesting that decision-making in philanthropy is not always informed by data and that foundations talk more about nonprofit capacity building than they fund it.  I’d love to know if others see any hopeful signs of progress.



Leave a Reply