Smart Decision-Making

Published: March 2020

Type: Publication

The social sector is drowning in evidence-based research but more often than not fails to use it effectively in organizational settings to improve outcomes. Bridging the divide between generating and using evidence requires a more holistic approach to decision-making.

Ian David Moss
Julia Coffman, Headshot
Tanya Beer

Why is it so hard to apply findings from evaluation, research, and other data-driven projects to philanthropic decisions? Why does evidence so often seem to generate more questions than answers?

Because we in the social sector have been trained to believe that smart decisions thrive on evidence, it’s easy to assume that the act of gathering evidence will make the difference between a poor decision and a wise one. In philanthropy, however, that assumption fails to hold time and again.

One of the most striking and consistent findings from research with foundations, policymakers, and nonprofits is that even when evidence is available, it is rarely used. Research on the use of evidence in philanthropy has noted a number of barriers to its greater adoption:

  • The problem is not always a lack of information.
  • We crave certainty that evidence doesn’t provide.
  • It’s easy to ask irrelevant questions.
  • Learning and decision-making are organizationally siloed.

Five Ideas to Use Evidence More Effectively

Evidence is an important mechanism for improving social sector outcomes. A number of tools and tactics—rarely used effectively in philanthropy but with long track records in other professional communities—can help us become savvier consumers of information. Five ideas include:

  1. Try decision inventories.
  2. Rehearse decisions.
  3. Use strategic learning agendas as a bridge.
  4. Ensure that support staff see their roles as critical thinkers.
  5. Don’t treat decisions as handoffs.


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