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Strategic Philanthropy

How can you tell if your philanthropy has made a difference? Try evaluation.

How can you tell if your philanthropy has made a difference? Are you even wondering? Most funders find it difficult to measure the impact of their philanthropic investments. Some look for rigorous metrics and may be surprised by the complexities involved in assessing social impact. Despite the challenges, there are many good reasons for incorporating evaluation into philanthropy, and donors who do so find that the learning they derive from the evaluation process adds value and meaning, and can help them become more effective funders over time.

For those who are just starting to think about how best to evaluate their philanthropic activities, I encourage you to check out TPI’s primer, Making a Difference: Evaluating Your Philanthropy. Whether you choose an analytical approach or a more intuitive one, one of the most important goals is to learn from your philanthropic strategies and choices. The primer offers simple, pragmatic approaches to evaluation, along with some key questions that can serve as a guide: 

What do I want to measure?

The first and most difficult step in evaluating is understanding what you want to evaluate. There are a variety of things you can assess, including:  

  • Activity – Is the effort you have funded taking place?
  • Process – Is the work progressing according to plan?  
  • Inputs – What are the available resources and how effectively are they being managed?  
  • Strategies – Are the strategies clearly defined?  
  • Outputs – What is the funded effort producing, in terms of concrete data?  
  • Outcomes – What are the tangible results or outcomes?   
  • Impact – What is the long-term impact within a broader context?  
  • Effectiveness – Do the outcomes and impact justify the resources allocated to the project? 

What are the steps I should take?

Effective evaluations are tailored to the specifics of the organization as well as pre-identified goals, and are pragmatic and respectful, with consideration of what is feasible for a nonprofit to evaluate. Very few donors have the time, money, and resources to embark on formal, large-scale longitudinal evaluations. For many philanthropists, the starting point may be progress reports, site visits, and periodic conversations with grantee partners to gain insights into their accomplishments as well as the challenges they are facing. These and other tools and approaches are described in Making a Difference: Evaluating Your Philanthropy. 

Did my gift make a difference?

Even with all the tools to conduct evaluations, it can still be difficult to get a reliable answer to the question, “Did my funding make a difference?” Every giving situation is unique and raises specific challenges. For example, it can be difficult to quantify impact within a relatively short timeframe, and even when there are measurable outcomes, it is often difficult or impossible to attribute those outcomes to a specific grant. 

These and other limitations and challenges remind us that evaluations rarely point to definitive answers, but can prompt reflection and offer lessons that will resonate over time. Be patient yet persistent, focusing on authentic inquiry and deep learning. 

Making a Difference: Evaluating Your Philanthropy offers strategies and tools while providing a guiding hand to donors who wish to begin evaluating their philanthropy. If you’re more of a seasoned philanthropist seeking help with in-depth evaluation, please reach out. TPI has decades of experience helping funders of all kinds assess their giving. Evaluating philanthropy requires commitment, energy, and resources, but the results can lead to more meaningful and sustainable efforts that ultimately increase your impact.