Effectiveness = Empathy + Evaluation

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Tom Kelly of the Annie E Casey Foundation.

By Tom Kelly

image I became a part of The Annie E. Casey Foundation in 1999 but only really felt a part of philanthropy after attending my first Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s (GEO’s) conference in 2000. It may have been only the second GEO conference but it was an enormously helpful introduction for a philanthropy novice to meet and hear from experienced grantmakers and even fellow novices who were intentionally learning, experimenting, and sharing. To this day I can describe the first GEO breakout session I sat in where a retired foundation board member, consultant, and executive director shared mini-case studies of her most challenging grantmaking problems throughout her career and how she did (or did not) solve them.

This intentional learning and sharing is what sets the “GEO crowd” apart and it shows up both in the conference presentations but also in the participation of the attendees here in Pittsburgh and also throughout the year via the GEO listserv, case study documents, and GEO-facilitated action learning and communities of practice. As an evaluator inside a foundation, I look to the GEO network along with the American Evaluation Association as my main sources of peer learning and practice.

You will probably read more than once about Dev Patnaik’s great opening keynote on empathy and how foundations must open themselves up to the experiences and perspectives of others, particularly of the communities we fund and serve. What struck me was that although evaluators usually do not use the word empathy, we strive to determine and document people’s experiences, interpretations, and observations. The American Evaluation Association’s Guiding Principles for Evaluators includes “When planning and reporting evaluations, evaluators should include relevant perspectives and interests of the full range of stakeholders.” Evaluators usually talk about triangulating perspectives and ensuring that different interpretations of data are included—what Patnaik would call "pretty arcane words for some ordinary things" like empathy.

At the first breakout session I attended on Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement, an audience member asked the presenters, “How do you balance empathy with evaluation?” We need to make sure that we measure the things we care about, that are important, and that tell us we are making progress not just at the program level or the organizational or system level, but at the CHILD level.

During Casey’s ten-year Making Connections community change initiative, our local and cross-site evaluators have been struggling with exactly the same challenge. I remember one of the local program staff in Louisville pointing to a table of school academic achievement data and emphasizing that every number has a name, “These are our kids—we know them.” In order to understand the meaning of data, we first need the data to mean something to us.

At a local evaluation meeting in one of the other cities, one of the residents stopped the local evaluator in the middle of his Powerpoint presentation and said “Before I’m going to care about how much you know, I first want to know how much you care.”

Patnaik defined innovation as empathy + creativity + execution. I would suggest the corollary that adding empathy to evaluation may be our path to philanthropic effectiveness.