Maximizing the Power of Impact Assessment in Philanthropy

By Lauren A. Silverstein, Ph.D.

Imagine this scenario: It’s the new year and your financial advisor tells you it’s a good time to evaluate your investments. Which of your investments resulted in gains? Which of your investments have a good long-term projection in terms of increasing growth? How risky is your portfolio? Seems like a reasonable and productive exercise, right?

What if I told you that our Federation donors in Greater MetroWest New Jersey are asking us these same questions about their investments in our annual campaign? And with the passing of the new tax bill that will eliminate the tax incentive for charitable contributions of some donors, we are expecting even more of these questions. “If donors no longer have a tax incentive to give to any charity, they will be needing more and more reasons to have confidence in the mission and job that charities are doing,” says Steven Woolf, Senior Tax Policy Counsel for the Jewish Federations of North America.

How to use impact assessment to grow a campaign AND strengthen relationships with agencies

While some may nostalgically long for the donors who gave to Federations because it was “just what you did,” we look at the increased scrutiny as an opportunity. Questions about impact will not only make our campaign stronger (imagine instead of relying on a single heart-warming story, we have data that combines themes from all of these stories into a powerful case for giving), but more precisely understanding our impact is our obligation. We should WANT to know we are making the difference we say we are. Our donors are not wrong for asking tough questions.

Eighteen months ago, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ created an Impact Assessment & Learning Department in an effort to be more accountable about where our dollars are going and to be more efficient with the dollars we allocate. Here are just three way we have utilized evaluation and learning to more precisely answer our donors and strengthen our Federation community:

1. Take a collaborative approach. With the agencies and programs that engage in an evaluation, we are careful to frame the process in a positive light. We do not introduce ourselves as inspectors. We’ve learned this approach instills fear, and then often manipulation. Nobody wins. Instead, our philosophy is that evaluation IS learning. It is used to answer our most pressing questions. With our agencies, we set goals, we plan, we measure, and THEN we talk about what informed action we can now take. We’ve learned that when evaluation is done collaboratively, instead of our agencies resenting us, they appreciate this resource. Instead of Federation being viewed as the “big, bad and often dwindling” funder, through the impact assessment process, Federation is offering in-kind support in an area that benefits agencies internally as well as with other funders.

2. Make it public. One objective of our impact assessment work is to better tell our community where Federation dollars go. Essentially, impact assessment drives tools to help with branding and marketing. Want to see an example? Check out our interactive dashboard, which lives on our webpage.

3. “Teach a man to fish…” Philanthropy has the responsibility to make grantees stronger. In an effort to teach our agencies how to conduct and utilize evaluation for learning purposes, we have created Impact University. Every month we bring our beneficiary agencies together (it’s not required, but you would think it was, given our attendance rate!) to discuss a different evaluation skill. Last month it was identifying performance measures. This month it’s how to write a good survey. Next month it’s how to visualize your data. Many of our agencies don’t have an in-house evaluation professional, yet funders ask for evaluation data constantly. As funders, we can provide evaluation tools as a solution for our grantees, not a problem they have to figure out.

The call to action

Just as responsible financial investing requires research and data gathering, so too does responsible philanthropy. Financial investors rarely encourage their clients to build their portfolio with only their hearts, and not their heads. We should expect, and, arguably, encourage, the same from our donors. To do so, we must be equipped to provide donors with the information they seek to feel confident in their gift. And at the same time, we must also equip our agencies with the capacity to provide us with reliable data.

Furthermore, we have an opportunity as funders to elevate the field. How many of us are measuring the same programs? Are some measures better than others? How can we pool evaluation funds where we are duplicating work? How can we streamline our work so that our agencies see evaluation as an opportunity to measure what matters and not as a burden? (How many forms are agencies filling out for the same program, that all ask different questions, and are due at different times?)

The foresight and ongoing support of professional and lay leadership, and the colleagueship of the Jewish Evaluators Network, puts the field of Jewish philanthropy at the forefront of institutionalizing impact assessment. By working together, we can continue to serve as a model for how to most effectively use evaluation to strengthen Jewish philanthropy, and by extension our communities.

Lauren A. Silverstein, Ph.D., is the Director of Impact Assessment & Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.