Use of Evaluative Information in Foundations: 2009 Benchmarking Data

Published: June 2010

Type: Presentation

This presentation, developed for the Evaluation Roundtable, offers† benchmarking data on foundation practices regarding evaluation and learning and how evaluation resources are deployed.


A small set of pioneering foundations first began staffing the evaluation function in the late 1970s when the discipline of evaluation was just getting started. The number of foundations making staffing and other resource commitments to evaluation expanded substantially in the 1990s during a period of professionalization in philanthropy, when many foundations shifted their approach from that of a charitable and responsive grantmaker to become more directive and purposeful “strategic philanthropists.” †

Strategic philanthropy is linked to being “effective” at achieving a set of articulated goals or outcomes. This focus on results and an increased accountability for achieving them led many foundations to make an increased commitment toward measurement.
This commitment by many foundations to strategic philanthropy had a substantial impact on the evaluation function in philanthropy. Evaluation units expanded their focus from the assessment of individual grants or grantees to the assessment of foundation strategies and whether foundations were “adding value.”

In the shift toward strategic philanthropy, foundations have been challenged to re-frame evaluation from an older model of “post hoc” assessment of grantees for accountability to one that examines their own work and is structured to inform strategy from start to finish.

The role and function of evaluation sits astride several philosophical debates related to this evolution of philanthropy, largely pivoting around the degree to which evaluation’s core purpose is supporting learning and continuous improvement or ensuring accountability for results. This core tension is played out in numerous questions regarding the evaluation function’s responsibilities, orientation (focused on internal or external audiences), and level of resources relative to value.
Developed for the 2010 Evaluation Roundtable convening, this study sought to describe how foundations use “evaluative information” (in its many forms) to guide their work. It analyzed how the structure and authority of the evaluation function affect a foundation’s perceived use of evaluative information.