On the Other Side of Complexity: The McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program

Published: September 2017

Type: Teaching Case

This teaching case explores the creation, implementation, and ongoing refinement of an evaluation and learning approach for The McKnight Foundation's Collaborative Crop Research Program from 2008 to 2017. 


Teaching cases are factual stories of one foundation’s in-depth experiences related to evaluation and learning. Stories highlight important challenges that confront foundations in their evaluation work, and put readers in the role of decision makers who are confronted with problems and options for solutions as the story unfolds. This teaching case was produced for the Evaluation Roundtable, a network of evaluation and learning leaders in foundations.


As foundations look for ways to make lasting impact, many develop initiatives with multiple actors and complex, interrelated parts that their leaders hope will add up to systemic change. In taking on this  difficult work, it can be unclear what different actors in a complicated initiative need to learn to have more impact, both individually and together. If evaluation approaches are intended to help participants at all levels have a durable and meaningful effect, figuring out how to focus and design such an evaluation is a big challenge.

With diverse and extensive initiatives aimed at changing systems, whose learning should foundations prioritize? What are the implications for evaluation design, processes, and tools? How might evaluation and learning practices be structured so they can meet the needs of multiple audiences at the same time? What does it really take to create and support an evaluation approach—and a habit and culture of learning—that actually adds value and results in real change?

In 2008, under the direction of a new president, The McKnight Foundation embarked on a process to imbue such learning at every level of one of its signature international programs: the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP). This effort would be built on the particular culture of McKnight, which prized autonomy within program leadership, collaborative work, and long-term program commitments.

Throughout the initiative, the evaluation team wrestled with how to create an evaluation and learning approach that is robust enough to provide real value for complex work, yet simple enough to actually implement and use.