Does this sound familiar? I was managing a third party evaluation in one of the most engaged, value-driven organizations that I had ever experienced. Grantees were respected. There was an emphasis on the idea of story. Collaboration was viewed as the way toward change and community was the desired location of engagement. The strategy was long term, multi-faceted, complex, and ever evolving.
The evaluation had been clearly designed and had yielded valuable information. Yet every time the board and staff talked about the evaluation results, the conversation inevitably shifted to the value of evaluation itself – and some version of comments like:
“Yes, but what really changed?”
“Why can’t we capture the change that we know is happening.” and very politely,
“What does all this costly data mean exactly- how has evaluation helped the strategy?”
The room would seem smaller as I watched exciting change ideas turn into a circular conversation about data. I had seen it before, been part of it before, read the reports. Foundation evaluation processes began with questions completely aligned with strategy. Years of data collection led to fine reports responding to initial questions. Sometimes the processes even included participation of staff and grantees in learning about the data through a theory of change.
Yet, too often, the experience of learning seemed to wither. The messiness and depth of change initiatives with multiple perspectives, and intriguing connections, could easily be lost. Still, reliance on linear forms of inquiry were considered the standard for credibility. The ways in which participants framed their experience, constructed meaning, accounted for their own learning, were rarely captured or valued in the process or the reporting.
So one day, I wondered:
- What would happen if we truly embraced the ideas of knowledge development in its many forms?
- What if we contended with the issues of power, voice, and access at the beginning, in the process, and all the way through interpretation and reporting?
- Could we maximize the investments in both strategy and knowledge if we saw them as integral to each other rather than separate?
- What processes could lead to valuing rather than evaluating change initiatives and their participants?
I believed that this proposition, if it could happen anywhere, could happen in philanthropic change efforts. In philanthropy there is the privilege to experiment, to craft learning agreements with participants, and to remain in strategy long term. If we needed to question anywhere, it needed to be in philanthropy where the tension between money and power and investments in equity can be central.
These thoughts prompted the creation of Knowledge Designs to Change, LLC.