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February 23, 2017

How the Social Innovation Fund supports a culture of evaluation

February 23, 2017

The Social Innovation Fund (SIF), a federal program that funds community-based organizations by awarding grants to intermediary organizations, faces an uncertain fate. Even though leaders from both political parties agree on the need for greater efficiency within government-funded programs, many SIF supporters are waiting to hear how the new administration will leverage high-impact evidence-based programs like SIF in their upcoming budget proposal.

In its brief history, the SIF has been a model of evidence-based policymaking and has promoted a more expansive understanding of what it means to support programmatic evaluation. The SIF places a high priority on funding programs with substantial evidence of success and on rigorous evaluation to assess effectiveness. It has also recognized a long-standing complaint among nonprofit grantees—that they are often asked to bear the burden of evaluation with little assistance—and has emphasized how grantmakers can support and sustain grantees’ evaluation capacity.

This effort goes beyond providing funds for evaluations. It’s a broader commitment involving the creation of a culture of evaluation, which must be nourished throughout the entire evaluation process, from the earliest stages of planning to the dissemination of results. It also entails recognizing that grantees must continuously and consistently refine evaluation strategies.

Fortunately for the social sector, knowledge sharing is one of six key elements of the SIF program model. The SIF Knowledge Initiative, a hub for information about effective practices and lessons learned by grantees, recently published a report that describes how the SIF helps grantees and subgrantees build their evaluation capacity.

Based on evidence from interviews with staff from the first cohort of SIF grantees, researchers identified several innovations that helped the original grantees scale their programs and operate more efficiently—and offered lessons that other nonprofits could embrace in their efforts to achieve scale and efficiency:

  • The SIF Evaluation Plan Guidance provides practical tips for implementing a wide variety of evaluation methods and helps organizations design the study that best suits their needs. This important, underused resource can help any organization plan an evaluation from start to finish.
  • The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation relied on a novel institutional configuration, its evaluation advisory committee (EAC), to help its subgrantees plan their evaluations. The foundation’s EAC reviewed all evaluation designs, discussed them with the subgrantees and their evaluators, and reviewed the study results as they came in. The foundation also recommended that its subgrantees form their own advisory committees. One subgrantee said its EAC was “incredibly valuable at just diving into the weeds behind the statistics and the methods.” The EAC is a great way for an organization to create long-lasting connections with evaluation experts that can promote sustained programmatic success.
  • While the SIF requires rigorous evaluation for all the program interventions it sponsors, the program also encourages grantees to use the evaluation process to identify opportunities for improvement. Another subgrantee of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which recruits community volunteers to provide individualized reading instruction to elementary school students, realized that its program wasn’t going to give the students the help they really needed. The evaluation helped the organization’s leaders design dramatic changes in the organization’s strategies and priorities and helped it sell these changes to its stakeholders.

The SIF helps organizations bring successful programs to scale by encouraging them to strengthen their evaluation capacity and evidence base. Both are necessary to sustain a strong evaluation culture. The SIF’s guiding philosophy is very much in line with Urban’s: the best public policy and programmatic interventions are evidence-based. Thanks to SIF’s commitment to knowledge sharing, no matter what happens to federal funding, other organizations can benefit from the lessons learned by SIF-funded organizations.

Illustration by Andrew Baker/Getty Images.

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