Why equitable evaluation?

our opportunity and moral imperative


Imagine if evaluation was conceptualized, implemented, and utilized in a manner that promotes equity.

Everyday narratives that continue to marginalize, minimize, and disrespect people of color and those with less privilege could be replaced with ones that do not demonize and place blame on the individual. They could instead lift up the historical, contextual, and powerful dynamics that create and sustain oppression and shed light on the strategies and solutions which can shift the “rules of the game” so that equity is achievable.

The time is now.

Mission driven organizations naming equity or racial equity as their strategic end must use every asset, including evaluation, in service of that aim.

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However, equity is not core to evaluation roots. 

In the US, evaluation’s initial purpose was to inform the allocation of public dollars and the effectiveness of those investments. This was driven primarily by deeper and larger investments in social programs designed to help those who needed it most, primarily focusing on education, healthcare, and other social programs aimed at the individual. The methods of scientific research—including controlling and isolating for contributing and confounding factors, controlled environments, and questions of dose—became part of the underpinning of evaluation.

The impetus for foundations to embrace evaluation was a balance between two things: 1) increasing federal and community interest in how they were spending their assets and 2) preventing too many questions. Early evaluators in philanthropy were often from the

federal sector bringing with them methods and tools that had served them well when conducting evaluation research or longitudinal studies for the federal government or in research institutions. Much of this has transferred to how nonprofits have experienced evaluation and how those who work with both nonprofits and foundations conduct evaluation.

The current evaluation paradigm includes definitions and expectations around validity, rigor, bias, and objectivity that honors particular types of knowledge, evidence, and truth. This looks for generalizable and scaled data and findings that often feel disconnected and not reflective of the values of the nonprofit/community partner, particularly those engaged in equity, inequality, or social justice work. 

We believe evaluation can be in service of equity, but we also believe it’s time to embrace a more accurate and complex understanding and commitment to validity, one that is appropriate for the 21st century endeavors in which many foundations and nonprofits are engaged.

We need to shift the paradigm:

  • Acknowledge that evaluation reflects a paradigm that cloaks privilege and racism as objectivity.
  • Explore the ways in which current practices in foundations, nonprofits, and among consultants can be barriers to the adoption of equitable evaluation principles, and identify and share approaches that interrupt those habits.
  • Elevate evaluative thinking which links organizational culture, strategy, and evaluation to be a leadership competency and organizational capacity.
  • Move beyond methodological approaches and evaluator demographics to address culture and context, and in so doing, unpack our definitions of evidence, knowledge, and truth so that we may create new ones grounded in this time, place, and set of intentions.
  • Continue to diversify and expand the talent pool of evaluators, and ensure that their training (both formal and informal) introduces and nurtures a myriad of new and different ways to conceptualize evidence, knowledge, and truth in service of greater validity and rigor.
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Together, we are exploring, prototyping, and advancing a new frame.

today: the equitable evaluation initiative

We have now launched a 5-year initiative to answer this call to action. The Ford Foundation and The California Endowment responded by supporting the initiative's strategy development and launch. The Kresge Foundation offered its’ FreshLo Initiative as the first EE teaching case that is underway. WKKF continued its commitment to EE by supporting research to understand how the current nonprofit leadership development framework might evolve to include evaluative thinking and equity. Since August 2017, the EEI Team has engaged in multiple gatherings and work sessions across the country to talk about equitable evaluation.



ee in context

This conversation could not have happened 10 years ago or even 5, due to an awakening among many that this country is designed to privilege some over others and that policies, systems, and structures are designed to perpetuate that reality. This also includes the standards we use to determine worth, value, and merit, all of which are core to what we define as evaluation. Equitable evaluation also benefits from the scholarship and values of evaluation theorists and practitioners globally who have continued to push what evaluation should be. These include (and by no means is this list exhaustive), the works of Cram, Hopson, Hood, Kirkhart, Mertens, Greene, Schwandt, LaFrance, and more. Thank you.

2016-2017: the ee project

In 2016, a collaborative team of Luminare Group, Center for Evaluation Innovation, and Johnson Center for Philanthropy came together to explore the ways in which foundations were both conceptualizing and using evaluation to advance equity. With core funding from WK Kellogg Foundation and complimentary funding from The California Endowment and Kresge Foundation, the team engaged in both primary and secondary research that culminated in an invitational August 1 Roundtable. During this convening, the three EE principles were affirmed and the ways in which current evaluation practices in foundations might limit their adoption were explored. There was also agreement that this conversation and work was important, transformational, and needed to expand.


the Equitable Evaluation Initiative's Vision

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