Funders are from Mars, Consultants are from Venus

If we want evaluation to add real value to social change efforts, both funders and evaluation consultants have to re-examine their roles and how they relate.

This entry is part of a series of evaluator responses to critiques of evaluation and our visions for a better future. Read more about the reason for this blog and the other responses here.

“Funders are from Mars, Consultants are from Venus” is a comment made by one of the attendees at our most recent Evaluation Roundtable convening. The Evaluation Roundtable is an informal network of foundation leaders in evaluation that aims to improve evaluation and learning practice in philanthropy. We at the Center for Evaluation Innovation coordinate the network and convene it periodically.

While our Roundtable convenings normally include only the foundation representatives who participate in the network, this time we tried something different — we included a group of evaluation consultants who work with foundations. We wanted to hear what both sides of this relationship wanted the other to do differently to tackle the common criticism that for all of the money and effort spent, evaluation in philanthropy is not returning enough value for social change efforts.

To kick off the funder-consultant conversation, we handed out sticky notes and asked each participant to finish this sentence:

We collected the results, and then themed them to identify where we converged and diverged.

The attendee making the Mars-Venus comment was of course referring to the bestselling 1992 book about relationships. In it, author John Gray concluded that many of the relationship problems between men and women stem from their different norms, customs, and ways of communicating. On the sticky notes we collected, we found evidence of this same phenomenon between those who commission evaluations (foundations) and the consultants who conduct them.

There’s a lot to dig into in the feedback. A summary of our key takeaways follows.

Foundation evaluators want consultants to push back and to push harder.

Evaluation consultants often refer to themselves as “critical friends” to their foundation clients. But foundation leaders were clear that they don’t think evaluation consultants are being critical enough.

To push harder, foundations and evaluators need a different kind of relationship.

Evaluation consultants say that a lot has to change about their relationships with foundations for consultants to feel safe in this kind of “pushing back.” The problem is that foundation-consultant interactions primarily are transactional instead of relational. Our agreements do not focus on how the foundation and evaluation will relate to one another, communicate, or build trust. Instead, they reinforce the uneven power dynamics that are inherent in fee-for-service relationships.

We need to change the mental models that govern our relationships.

How we approach foundation-consultant relationships now is not helping us to understand each other, build trust, challenge each other’s thinking, and ultimately get more relevant and useful evaluation work and products. We need a different approach that shifts us away from the limiting mental models that get triggered when we think about evaluation consultants.

There is some precedent for changing these models in how foundations have worked on their relationships with grantees.

Many foundations have tried to improve their relationships and more equitably distribute power by referring to and treating their grantees as partners. Use of this term helps to trigger different mental models to put foundations and grantees on more equal footing, and give a sense that this is a relationship in which both sides have agency.

Because a different label alone does nothing to actually change the real and uneven power dynamics between funders and grantees, norms and behaviors that go along with this re-framing must reinforce it.

Changing our norms and practices is doable.

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus was wildly successful because it helped millions of couples diagnose what was getting in the way of satisfying relationships (i.e., different ways of communicating), and then helped to improve them by suggesting manageable behavior shifts.

What will it take to shift our relationships so that evaluation can add more value to social change? Just changing the labels and calling ourselves partners won’t do it. We have to do things that help to shift how we think about our relationships so that we treat each other as partners in the work.

Our Roundtable convening participants offered some specific ideas about what it would mean behaviorally to be better partners.