Planning and Evaluation in a Disrupted Reality

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By Eitan Goldberg and Hamutal Gouri 

Planning and evaluation are important; we all agree to that. Yet, in our many years of working with social change organizations in Israel and with foundations and funders who support them, we are both well aware of the tension – and often gaps in expectations –  that planning and evaluation can produce in the highly volatile reality of promoting social change in Israel. This is especially true for organizations working to effect public policies and to place social causes on the public and policy agenda. Popular strategic planning tools – such as the logic model and its likes, and particularly the way they are prevalently used to monitor progress and adherence to a plan set long ago – are often too rigid and, well, too logical for the disrupted arena in which these groups operate. And as for evaluation, we find that more often than not, both funders and grantees think of it more as an audit or as an end-of-the-year report card, rather than as an opportunity to learn, grow and become more effective in bringing about the change they desire.

Yet, we all agree that planning and evaluation are critical for all those invested in making the world a better place. So how can nonprofits plan and evaluate in times of so much uncertainty? Specifically, organizations engaged in complex social-change processes are asking how can they know how effective they are in their public education and grassroots advocacy when they have little control over so many key factors? And how can we in the nonprofit sector employ strategic planning approaches, along with research and evaluation, to learn, improve and make a difference?

Evaluation as a discipline was developed to assess the effectiveness of educational and service-provision programs. Consequently, perhaps, social change organizations long-felt that existing evaluation approaches and methods are not always as helpful as they should be.  

It is our belief that evaluation that relies on rigid, pre-determined and fixed linear models developed long in advance, is of little help if our aim is to improve ongoing social-change efforts. Furthermore, it can adversely affect the ability of organizations to make real-time adaptations, and therefore, it can ultimately do more harm than good.    

What are some of the key attributes of social change initiatives that affect planning and evaluation? And how should nonprofits and funders respond? 

Frequent and unexpected changes in the context in which nonprofits operate make it difficult to articulate and hold on to desired outcomes. A realistic and useful definition of intended outcomes may evolve over time. Planning and evaluation must carefully consider changes in the social, political, economic and legal context to assess what should be considered a success in a given timeframe. An honest and ongoing conversation between funders and grantees can be a key to assuring that monitoring and evaluation processes improve the effectiveness of the work.

Demonstrate contribution, not attribution. In complex social-change processes, many actors and factors are involved. Some may be visible while other may operate behind the scene. It is usually difficult or impossible to attribute a specific change exclusively to one organization’s specific intervention. The organizations work within a complex system of interactions, wherein many actors influence each other. It’s not only difficult to attribute a success to one organization; it can be adversely affect joint work, partnership and coordination that, in the long term, are often essential for effecting a sustainable social change. In reporting about their work, grantees should address the type and quality of their contribution to wider efforts, in relation to other actors in the echo system.

Attitude change and policy reform take time; usually well beyond the period of a grant given for a predetermined and limited period. Unexpected opportunities may open up, and it may take a long time to reach a window of opportunity. For example, in June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the right of same-sex couples to marry. However, in all likelihood, that would not have happened without decades of work leading to profound changes in public consciousness, the development of a movement’s capacities and the mobilization of wide audiences. Thus recognizing those milestones on the way to the desired long-term change is essential, both in the initial planning of the intervention as well as during implementation.

A new Hebrew language guidebook published by Shatil, the action arm of the New Israel Fund, takes on the issue of planning and evaluation against a backdrop of complexity. It presumes that strategic planning and evaluation are interlinked; that recognition of this link can help social change organizations to be more outcome oriented; to better assess their environment; to engage in ongoing learning, and to identify progress toward long-term goals.

We hope that this guidebook will help to ignite an open dialogue between funders and grantees in Israel’s social-change arena. 

Eitan Goldberg is an evaluation consultant at the New Israel Fund-Shatil, where he leads efforts to strengthen the evaluation capacities of social change organizations.
Hamutal Gouri is a consultant, trainer and storyteller for social change, and lecturer on gender and leadership in civil society organizations