The 'Active (Read: Ongoing) Practice' of Equitable Evaluation
By Kate Seely, Leadership, Culture, and Community Director, Northern California Grantmakers
As a kid, I practiced all the time – piano, soccer, reading – to get better at whatever it was I was doing. I practiced. I asked questions. I got frustrated. Inevitably, with that one piece of sheet music, that soccer move, or the next chapter book, I found the way through, most times with the help of those wiser and more experienced than myself.
As adults, we invoke the concept of beginner’s mind, inferring that curiosity and a sense of ‘not knowing’ will lead us on a better path, towards better results. Embedded in this invocation is the belief that our current practices are not getting us where we need to go. If we subscribe to that belief, then some of the most important acts that we can take, as individuals committed to social change, are the acts of un-learning and re-learning, in order to make space for more perspectives, and more potential solutions.
The Associations Advancing Equitable Evaluation Practices (AAEEP)* came together earlier this year to support and advance the equitable evaluation field of study and practice. As a part of this commitment, we offered an introductory webinar to our members sharing experiences of two foundations, Kresge and the Oregon Community Foundation, who are testing the waters of equitable evaluation. With an overwhelming interest in the webinar (we sold out at 500 registrants 10 days before the webinar!), some of their learnings feel potent enough to share, and begin with the value of practice.
Kim Leonard, from Oregon Community Foundation, mentioned on the webinar that much of equitable evaluation is an ‘active (read: ongoing) practice.’ This re-imagination of evaluation is relatively young. We haven’t worked out answers yet, and are just beginning to re-imagine a system that is heavily ingrained. Allowing that to be ok is hard, just as learning to play that piece on the piano is hard, but that is the way forward. Embrace the messiness! Let the notes sound terrible for a while. Cringe at it all! Slowly our fingers will find the way.
PURPOSE AND AUDIENCE
Part of the active practice of equitable evaluation is consistently asking ourselves the questions “for what” and “for whom.”
What purpose does our evaluation serve? Anna Cruz mentioned that, at Kresge, evaluation has begun to take a developmental frame. They have started asking themselves, “Why are we doing this? Who is it for and who will benefit from it?” (And if it was only for them, and they are asking grantees to be deeply engaged, is that an equitable practice?)
In equitable evaluation, we also have to ask ourselves who is designing it, and who is defining the questions we ask? And furthermore, what is it that we need to know and how will it inform our decisions?
If we are really open to change, then these questions can imply big shifts, all of which takes…
I’m not the first to say it, about this, or about anything, but this work takes time. Anna mentioned that her “work is largely made up of the in-between moments” that get us to the next big shift, decision, or aha moment. These are the moments when we’re talking through things, building relationships, and asking people to lean into this with trust.
Saying that things take time is not just lip service. It actually involves meeting tensions with spaciousness to be able to work through them in a way that opens up more possibilities, letting go of “the way we have always done things” and experimenting with different ways of operating. Time is a resource – adhering to artificial timelines and deadlines may ultimately not allow us to do the work we need to do in those in-between moments.
After spending hours and hours at the piano, working painstakingly on a piece, when the notes would finally begin to sound harmonious, and the mistakes began to fade, I would feel a warm swell of energy in my body, the chills and goosebumps on my skin, a recognition of the time and practice it had taken to get there. It had been hard, and it had taken a long time, but it was all worth it and the result was so beautiful in the end.
* Associations Advancing Equitable Evaluation Practices is a group of nine membership organizations across the country: Connecticut Council for Philanthropy, Council of Michigan Foundations, Forefront, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Maryland Philanthropy Network, Northern California Grantmakers, PEAK grantmaking, Philanthropy New York, and Philanthropy Northwest.