Philanthropy, Evaluation, Accountability, and Social Change

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Resource Details
Publication Date: 
December 2009
John Bare, Ph.D.
The Foundation Review
Number of Pages: 

This piece suggests that the accountability movement is “setting a floor for minimum standards” (p. 84) and has consequences for effective social change work. Foundations, in particular, measure impact in terms of attentiveness to accountability standards, but this is a false measure of success.  Instead, the organization’s focus should be on its transformative value to society. Focusing on narrow measures of accountability is problematic, because, as Bare states, “For foundations, when they attempt to deconstruct complex social change agendas to create bite-size, measurable grant projects—those with quantifiable measures and easy attribution—the foundations lose contact with the larger purpose of their work” (p. 85).  Put simply, accountability tools can get in the way of complex social change.  Complexity is a characteristic of social change, and thus should be acknowledged as such. Not only can accountability measures create a “minimum standards” environment, they also contribute to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to problem solving.  This is problematic considering context is essential in designing effective programs. Westley, Zimmerman, and Patton’s 2006 work defines the characteristics of simple, complicated, and complex systems and gives guidance as to what approach is needed depending on the system type.   Bare gives significant attention to the area of education as a study in evaluation, accountability, and social change.  After a review of this complex area with examples of failures and successes, he suggests eight imaginative tools to advance social change: Risk Analysis. Identifying potential risks and hazards will help foundations identify possible threats to a strategy and think about what is most likely to go wrong. Systems Approaches. Foundations should identify the nature of the system (i.e. simple, complicated, complex) as a first step.  The system should serve as a guide for identifying tools and approaches.   Testing Assumptions. Faulty assumptions about a system or initiative are foundations’ “blind spots” (p. 99).  Foundations should consider the assumptions on which their strategy is based. The Outside View. Organizational pressures can lead to overoptimistic forecasts.  Foundations can seek an “outside view” as a frame of reference to push back against internally produced optimism. Sensemaking. Taking action with time for reflection is a critical component in determining the best course or strategy.  Foundations should not attempt to plan everything first, but instead, take action in order to make sense of a situation. Game Theory. Foundations should use a decision tree to make explicit decision points along the course of action (p. 101).  This helps to identify contingencies, alternate plans, and resources. Scenario Planning. Unlike logic models that predict the future based on a repeated course of events, scenario planning assumes that the future will be different than today.  Foundations can use this strategy to imagine what might be needed to increase their success in different scenarios. Documentary Methods. Photography, written narratives, audio, and video are powerful tools to explain complex systems.  Documentary products of this type “set things in motion” and are less likely to be ignored by the reader (p. 101).   John Bare is vice president of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and executive-in-residence at Georgia Tech’s Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship.  John holds a Ph.D. in mass communication research from the University of North Carolina and has taught college courses and executive education programs on evaluation and philanthropy’s role in social change.  He has published numerous book chapters and articles on topics ranging from international journalism training to symphony orchestra audiences to risk management. 

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