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Field guide launches to support foundations with centering equity in learning and evaluation

Learning and Evaluation

Q&A with Kresge Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation Managing Director Anna Cruz

The Kresge Foundation teamed up with the Irvine Foundation and Kauffman Foundation to participate in the recently launched Evaluation and Learning at Foundations Field Guide. Published by Engage R+D, a consulting firm dedicated to helping nonprofits and foundations measure their impact, the guide shares the equity journeys of these three foundations in the area of learning and evaluation – inspired and made possible by the work of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative (EEI), a Kresge partner – to inform others in the sector. You can learn more and download the full report here.

In this Q&A, Kresge’s managing director of Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation, Anna Cruz, shares what motivated her to participate in the guide and to put Kresge forward as a case study. She shares what she hopes readers will take away from the guide and her vision for philanthropic learning and evaluation.

Kresge: What is this guide all about?

Cruz: The Evaluation and Learning at Foundations Field Guide is a tool for staff working in philanthropic learning, evaluation, strategy and impact. The guide is full of tips and considerations on how to lead learning and evaluation practices in philanthropy. I want to stress that it’s not just for formal leaders of learning and evaluation practices; it’s really for all philanthropic colleagues using learning and evaluation tools to advance their foundation missions. The guide is full of insights, from the role of relationship-building to how equity can be more fully embedded in the work. There are also insights about timing, and what you might think of moving forward in the first 60 and 90 days of launching a new learning and evaluation practice.

For me, one of the best parts of the guide is that it’s based on real-world case examples of three foundations – Kresge, James Irvine and Kaufman – and the tensions we are navigating at each organization. Among these three foundations alone, learning and evaluation play different roles and are situated differently within their institutions. Some have longstanding practices, while others are younger practices. This diversity in perspective means there is something for everyone to apply and learn.

Many of us landed in our learning and evaluation roles through a myriad of windy roads. Nobody went to school saying, “I’m going to be a philanthropic learning and evaluation professional.” You don’t know what you don’t know when you get to your role, even if you’ve been in philanthropy or a field adjacent to it. So, I just think it’s a really good guide – really tactical and helpful to both new and long-established learning and evaluation professionals working in philanthropy.

Kresge: Can you share more about what motivated you to take part in this project with other learning and evaluation leaders in the sector?

Cruz: I really owe this project to my predecessor, Dr. Chera Reid, who now co-leads the Center for Evaluation Innovation. It was during her tenure at Kresge that we signed on to the project. Since the launch of Kresge’s Strategic Learning, Research and Evaluation practice in 2015, we’ve been committed to supporting and participating in field-building efforts that center learning and evaluation as tools to advance equity. We saw this guide – which not only provides practical tools for learning and evaluation professionals, but also demystifies the role of philanthropic learning and evaluation – as an opportunity to share what we’ve learned so far.

At Kresge, we’ve continuously tried to hold equity at the center of our learning and evaluation practice – asking questions about whose data matters, and who gets to benefit from evaluative work, pushing ourselves to consider different knowledge systems and ways of being, asking questions of ourselves, as much as we ask of our grantee partners. We also recognize that we, too, are part of the system, and, as such, we too should be the evaluands. It’s not just our grantee partners. Much of this thinking is more or less the norm now in philanthropy. However, just two or three years ago, when we were first approached to participate in this guide, it seemed less common.

All in all, our Kresge learning and evaluation practice holds a strong point of view on evaluation and its role in supporting our learning – and the learning of our grantee partners. We believe that philanthropic evaluation should include more perspectives, that we should interrogate our notions of rigor and evidence, and that we should interrogate who is the evaluand. Philanthropy has always evaluated grantees and their work, but that evaluative lens is rarely turned inward. I think because we’ve had those perspectives from the beginning at Kresge – and we work at an institution that has core values around equity – we saw the invitation to take part in the guide as a great opportunity to contribute to the field and to advance equitable evaluative practices.

Kresge: What are 2-3 major takeaways of the guide that you would like readers to consider as they engage it?

Cruz: The first thing that comes to mind is relationship building and trust. I think we cannot do this work without investing in real relationship building with our colleagues, with our partners, with our grantees and with the field at large. For this reason, when I see new leaders coming into philanthropic evaluation, I always encourage folks to find your people – to find the places and spaces where you can bounce ideas off of others, and where you can build relationships inside and outside of your organization.

I think the other takeaway that you’ll see in the guide is organizational context matters greatly. We often say in philanthropy, “You know one foundation, you know one foundation.” And this is true for learning and evaluation in philanthropy. Much of the guide is therefore rooted in understanding organizational context, discussing context-specific levers and barriers for moving organizational practices around learning and evaluation. The guide also considers the preconditions that might need to exist before we get to a place in which we can tackle harder questions of evidence, rigor and impact.

So, if there’s two takeaways that are really evident in the guide and that I encourage others to really lean into is: (1) build your relationships and invest in trust building, and (2) recognize your organizational context and culture, along with organizational values and theory of philanthropy. All of these factors matter in advancing learning and evaluation within your institution.

Lastly, one thing that is maybe not as evident in the guide, but certainly my takeaway – and my recommendation for new learning and evaluation leaders – is that we have a lot to contribute to advancing equity and justice. As learning staff, we not only have tools and frameworks, but also the power to slow things down for the good of those we serve. We have the power to step back and interrogate the multiple perspectives that we are embedding into our strategies. I think there’s just a lot that we can contribute to advancing equity and justice in the philanthropic sector. So, I encourage everyone to look for and to dream of those possibilities within your organizational context and within your circle of trust.

Kresge: Why is it important for philanthropy to make its work more visible to the field?

Cruz: We talk quite a bit about diversity, equity and inclusion in philanthropy. However, one of the things we don’t interrogate a whole lot is who sits in philanthropy. Who has access to these jobs? What are the networks that people find themselves in? Folks like me who come from community organizing, participatory research or other backgrounds not associated with philanthropy often do not end up in jobs like this. So, for me, it was really important that people who traditionally don’t have access to these networks, actually get to see what these jobs are all about. My hope is that they would see themselves doing what I’m doing.

Nobody told me that philanthropy existed when I was in graduate school. And neither was I trained to understand philanthropy as a major player in social-sector work. Philanthropy is often obscure and hard to grasp; there are all these myths surrounding philanthropy. And I think if we’re going to be real about our equity intentions, we’ve got to make the invisible visible – in every corner of our work. That includes in our job descriptions and in all that we do. My hope is that the folks who don’t have access to foundation networks are able to gain access and to see themselves as part of this work. I want to see more people in the sector who don’t hold the traditional backgrounds often found among philanthropic staff. I want to see more people who come from organizing backgrounds. I want to see people who are here because they’re all about the liberation of Black and Brown people. I think philanthropy needs that. We need more voices in philanthropy that bring different perspectives than the status quo. For this reason, it’s really important to me that we make the practice and sector more visible. This guide is a good step in the direction of making the invisible, visible.

Kresge: Any final words to share with readers of the guide?

Cruz: I just want to encourage other folks to read the guide, to add to it, and to use it as part of your toolbox. It is not an end all and be all. I really see it as a starting point. So, I invite folks to be in conversation with us, with the field, and to use the guide as suits you best.