Benchmarking Evaluation in Foundations: Do We Know What We Are Doing?

Published: January 2013

Type: Publication

This Foundation Review article presents findings about what foundations are doing on evaluation and discusses their implications. It is based on 2012 research that benchmarks the positioning, resourcing, and function of evaluation in foundations, and follows up on a 2009 study that used a similar design.

Julia Coffman
Tanya Beer

Evaluation in philanthropy–with staff assigned to evaluation-related responsibilities–began in the 1970s and has evolved, along with philanthropy, in the decades since.

When it started, evaluation in philanthropy looked much different than it does today. At the time, less than two percent of foundations had professional staff, making evaluation mostly a larger foundation concern. For those few foundations making concerted evaluation investments, the focus was on assessing individual grants, often as grants were closing.

As philanthropy has evolved in the decades since, so has evaluation in philanthropy. A surge in the number of foundations, the professionalization of nonprofit management and incorporation of a business orientation, an increase in the diversity of tools and methods available, the adoption of strategic philanthropy approaches, new methods for evaluating long-term and adaptive strategies, and high-profile foundation champions for evaluation all have contributed to this evolution.

What has not changed, however, is a regular questioning of what foundations are doing on evaluation, especially since the world of philanthropy regularly shifts, and changes in evaluation resourcing and positioning tend to soon follow. Questions also regularly arise about whether foundation investments are as useful as they can be, and if not, how to improve them.

This article presents findings on what foundations were doing on evaluation in 2012 and discusses the implications for improving.