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Donors Are Assessing Their Philanthropy – Are You Prepared?

“Since philanthropy is about providing resources to address society’s most difficult problems, working with grantees requires a shared purpose for success.” 

This is the key phrase from the recently published Assessing Impact Guide by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. 

This guide aims to help donors and philanthropists develop an effective assessment plan as an integral part of their overall giving strategy, in order to understand the impact of their charitable contributions and make informed decisions about future funding.

While in the past, many donors may have given charitably without much thought to the specific outputs or outcomes of their gift, this guide underscores how assessing the effectiveness of philanthropic investments has become increasingly commonplace and expected among more informed and strategic donors today. 

In fact, we predicted this trend. The fact that so many resources have been published recently about how funders and grantees must work together to increase social impact is not a coincidence.

As trust in institutions (public and private alike) continues to erode, guides like these will become more ubiquitous and accessible to donors of all giving levels.

“Experienced donors know how important it is to have reliable, relevant information about the programs they fund. Assessment, done in tandem with their grantees, can provide this information. Without it, donors risk missing their planned destination by miles. With it, they can orient their giving.”

The Assessing Impact Guide emphasizes the importance of having a clear understanding of the problem one is trying to solve, the theory of change, and the desired outcomes before embarking on an assessment plan. It likens effective philanthropy to a mariner's journey, requiring clear "charts" (a giving strategy) and a "GPS" (an assessment of that giving) to plot one's progress.

It outlines nine key questions that form a simple outline for developing an effective assessment plan as part of an overall giving strategy:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve? Clearly defining the problem you want to address is crucial, as it will guide the rest of your assessment plan.

  2. How do you think change will happen? Understanding your theory of change - how you believe your interventions will lead to the desired outcomes - is essential.

  3. How long will it take? Recognizing the time horizons involved in creating sustainable change is important for setting realistic expectations.

  4. How much money will it take? Estimating the resources required to achieve your goals can help inform your assessment approach.

  5. What will success look like? Defining clear, measurable indicators of success will allow you to track progress.

  6. What will be the signs of progress along the way? Identifying interim milestones can provide valuable feedback during the implementation process.

  7. How do the groups directly addressing these problems answer these questions? Engaging with your grantees to understand their perspectives can lead to a more collaborative assessment plan.

  8. Who else is working on this, and what assessment tools are they using? Considering the broader landscape and learning from others' experiences can improve your own approach.

  9. How much time and money are you willing to invest in assessment? Aligning your assessment ambitions with your available resources is crucial for ensuring a feasible and sustainable plan.

The guide acknowledges the increasing complexity and diversity of approaches to measuring philanthropic impact, with over 30 organizations currently developing methods for this purpose. It outlines three main reasons why donors engage in assessment: accountability, decision-making, and evaluation.

Evaluation focuses on comparing goals and outcomes, assessing processes, and using experimental or cluster designs. ROI aims to quantify the relationship between dollars invested and results achieved. Systems thinking takes a holistic view, seeking to identify and address the underlying factors driving a complex problem. The guide emphasizes that the choice of assessment approach should be matched to the philanthropist's goals and the nature of the problem being addressed.

Thankfully, the guide cautions against unrealistic expectations, noting that sustainable change often has long time horizons and that many factors beyond a single grant can influence outcomes. Rather than sanction a power disparity between donor and nonprofit, it encourages donors to partner with grantees in designing appropriate assessment plans, recognizing the burdens that overly burdensome reporting requirements can place on nonprofits.

The guide concludes by acknowledging the challenges inherent in measuring philanthropic impact but emphasizes the value of thoughtful, well-designed assessment as a critical component of effective giving. It provides a list of online resources for donors seeking to learn more about the latest developments in this evolving field.

Overall, the Assessing Impact Guide offers a well-rounded introduction to the topic of philanthropic assessment, highlighting the importance of aligning assessment with giving strategy, managing expectations, and fostering collaborative partnerships with grantees. It serves as a valuable resource for donors seeking to maximize the impact of their charitable contributions.

In order to effectively assess the impact of their investments, funders and their grantees need technology to automate and simplify the process of collecting and sharing impact data across the network. That’s why our founders designed SureImpact as a dedicated way to automate and simplify social impact assessment.


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