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History of Evaluation in Philantrhopy

Equity Evaluation Initiative

In the US, evaluation’s initial purpose was to inform the allocation of public dollars and the effectiveness of those investments. This was driven primarily by deeper and larger investments in social programs designed to help those who needed it most, primarily focusing on education, healthcare, and other social programs aimed at the individual. The methods of scientific research—including controlling and isolating for contributing and confounding factors, controlled environments, and questions of dose—became part of the underpinning of evaluation.

The impetus for foundations to embrace evaluation was a balance between two things: 1) increasing federal and community interest in how they were spending their assets and 2) preventing too many questions. Early evaluators in philanthropy were often from the federal sector bringing with them methods and tools that had served them well when conducting evaluation research or longitudinal studies for the federal government or in research institutions. Much of this has transferred to how nonprofits have experienced evaluation and how those who work with both nonprofits and foundations conduct evaluation.

The current evaluation paradigm includes definitions and expectations around validity, rigor, bias, and objectivity that honors particular types of knowledge, evidence, and truth. This looks for generalizable and scaled data and findings that often feel disconnected and not reflective of the values of the nonprofit/community partner, particularly those engaged in equity, inequality, or social justice work.