Planning for Monitoring, Learning, and Evaluation at Small- to Medium-Sized Foundations

Jul 1, 2016

This report is based on findings from desktop research and interviews with selected foundations conducted between April and June 2016. It was developed to give the Oak Foundation a sense of how other foundations are tackling monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) questions, and to show a range of options for Oak to consider as it develops its own MEL Plan. This summary of findings was developed for public distribution, anticipating that it may be useful for other donors.

Key trends that emerged from the interviews and desktop research included the following:

1. Foundations are spending more resources and putting more staff time into evaluation than they did in the past. Staff at smaller foundations tend to spend more time on individual grant evaluations, while staff at larger foundations tend to spend more time on assessments of broad program areas and on learning processes. While many foundations do not have consistent systems for tracking evaluation spending, some are deciding it would be useful to capture that information more methodically.

2. Less attention has been put on learning to-date, but recognition of the importance of purposeful learning is growing quickly. Many foundations are hoping to improve upon their learning processes, but finding that it is not easy. It often requires an internal cultural shift and testing a variety of approaches. In contrast, foundations tend to have fairly clear processes and standards for monitoring and evaluation. Foundations that do have explicit learning efforts remain more focused on internal learning rather than communicating and sharing lessons externally. Foundations tend to be more transparent with external audiences about their grant-making processes, goals, and strategies, and less transparent about how they assess performance or their lessons learned. That said, both grantees and foundations are recognizing that sharing more lessons externally would be beneficial.

3. Foundations are exploring appropriate and useful ways to evaluate work done through sub-granting organizations. Some are focusing on building the internal monitoring and evaluation capacity of those organizations. It would be useful for donors to coordinate approaches to evaluate work done through sub-granting organizations, which can allow for pooled resources and avoid putting an extra burden on the subgrantor.

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