Evaluation to Support Strategic Learning: Principles and Practices

Published: July 2011

Type: Publication

This brief digs into the definition of strategic learning. It explores how evaluation can support it, and proposes a set of principles that represent the “non-negotiables” of evaluation for strategic learning. 

Julia Coffman
Tanya Beer

The concept of strategic learning refers to efforts to incorporate reliable data and ongoing reflection into social change strategies. This concept is particularly important for strategic philanthropists who recognize that difficult problems often require transformative solutions, and who, in response, are adopting dynamic approaches to social change that think big and aim high. These strategies are often complicated—i.e., with multiple causal paths or ways of achieving outcomes—and complex—i.e., emergent, with specific goals and activities that develop while the strategy is being implemented.

Foundations that take on these strategies must be willing to live with uncertainty and acknowledge that their plans, no matter how well laid out, will likely shift as the circumstances around them evolve.

Strategic learning promises that the lessons that emerge from evaluation and other data sources will be timely, actionable, and forward-looking, and that strategists will gain insights that will help them to make their next move in a way that increases their likelihood of success.

This brief digs deeper into the definition of strategic learning and explores the characteristics of how evaluation, in particular, can support it. It proposes a set of principles that represent the “non-negotiables” of evaluation for strategic learning. The brief ends with thoughts on what lies ahead for this field of practice.