What should we benchmark about learning and evaluation work in philanthropy?

Findings from our fall listening sessions and what we will explore more deeply in our benchmarking research

By Dr. Albertina Lopez

We wrote recently about several changes that we are making to our benchmarking research on learning and evaluation practices in philanthropy so that it aligns with our values and with CEI’s mission of providing changemakers in philanthropy the space and resources they need to advance racial justice and create an equitable future.

In the first phase of our research last fall, we held three listening sessions with philanthropic learning and evaluation professionals to help us determine what data we should collect. We asked our colleagues:

  • What data were useful in previous benchmarking research and what did you use it for?
  • What can we let go of in our next round of research?
  • What should we add to help you align your learning and evaluation work to the purpose of advancing racial equity and justice?

Two of the three findings from these sessions further validated what we have heard previously about our benchmarking research:

01. Benchmarking research on sector trends influences how foundation staff think about their learning and evaluation function and equips them with the information they need to advocate for change. Many participants said they use the research to consider their foundation’s approach to learning and evaluation, including staffing, structure, scope, and position in the organizational hierarchy.

02. There is not much to “let go” of. Most of what was nominated as less essential in our research overlapped with what others found to be useful. For example, some listening session participants noted that data on evaluation budgets was helpful, while others thought there were too many other variables at play for that data to capture the full story of learning and evaluation resourcing.

Our third finding really energized us:

03. There is a huge amount of interest in data on how other foundations are aligning their learning and evaluation work with equity. Several important questions were raised:

  • How do learning and evaluation policies, practices, resources, and people differ (and do they) for foundations with an explicit focus on advancing equity and justice?
  • What does the process of better aligning policies, practices, and people look like? Are there typical stages of change or development? Where should people start?
  • What do relationships look like among evaluation staff, foundation strategy makers, consultants, grantees, community members, and other foundations? How are foundations addressing power dynamics?
  • What and whose knowledge matters in learning and evaluation—and why? What assumptions ground what evaluation is used for? What paradigms do foundations hold about evaluation?

All of these elements—learning and evaluation policies, practices, resource flows, relationships and connections, power dynamics, and mental models—are key elements for changing systems.

If we want to align how we do learning and evaluation in philanthropy with equity and justice, then we need to more closely examine these parts of foundation learning and evaluation systems, particularly to understand how they connect and can be shifted.

We will continue to update you as we move to the next phases of our benchmarking research.

Check your inbox for the survey and keep an eye out for our release of the findings in the fall!

Explore the 2023 Benchmarking Report