A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Continual Learning Through Intention and Evaluation

By Colleen O’Keefe, Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation

Colleen O'KeefeOriginally posted in Giving Forum, Minnesota Council on Foundations’  free, quarterly newspaper. Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation, a member of MCF and Exponent Philanthropy, is committed to improving the lives of disadvantaged children and their families. 

The Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation is a small family foundation with a mission to improve the lives of disadvantaged children and families in Minnesota. As much as we would like to solve all of the complex issues facing this population, we have had to accept our limited capacity.

And acceptance has helped us realize that to make a real difference in the community, focus and evaluation must be embedded throughout our grant process.

Indicators of Success

As a first step in our grant process, we review our priorities and discuss our indicators of success. We ensure that our indicators remain relevant to community needs, make sense for us, are within our control and are measurable.

We do this by creating “if, then” statements to focus our efforts. For example, if we create or enhance children’s programming in family-supportive housing programs, then children can stay on track developmentally while their parents are working to stabilize their lives.

We want our idea of success to directly address a community need and be attainable for our organization.

Intentional Grant Review

We check each letter of inquiry against our mission, priorities and indicators of success to see if it is a good fit for our foundation. We look specifically at the intended outcomes of the proposed grant to see if they align with our success indicators.

If we find alignment, we ask for a grant proposal with additional specifics, and we look more deeply at the organization – checking nonprofit status, financial health and whether the organization has the capacity to do the proposed work. We track:

  • Population served
  • Purpose and importance of the grant
  • Intended outcomes of the project or program
  • Strategies to achieve the intended outcomes
  • Evaluation tools for assessing outcomes
  • Assumptions or beliefs embedded in the information

Assumptions are important. We look at what strategies and evaluation are assumed necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. We make sure they are logical, looking for direct connections between the purpose, strategies, intended outcomes and evaluation. For example, if an after-school program aims to improve reading aptitude, we look for activities that develop reading and for measures of reading progress.

When we’re almost certain we want to proceed with a grant, we do a site visit to meet staff, view the physical space and, when possible, watch the programs in action. We ask questions and learn as much as we can about the organization and its work, but by this point in the grantmaking process, we’ve already done much of our initial assessment.

Follow-up Assessment

Sixty days after a grant ends, we receive a final report from each of our grantees. We take information contained in the report, compare it directly to the information we tracked during the review process, and we summarize two important take-aways: outcomes achieved and lessons learned.

As the Sauer family and I discuss grants, we believe it is important to document lessons learned, including insights from our grantees and other knowledge gained in the process. This way, we are growing as we continue our work.

For-profit companies evaluate their success against the bottom line. As a small family foundation, we measure the difference our grants make in our community by naming indicators of success within our control. What we achieve is based on our mission, vision and goals, and on finding the best partners to help us succeed. It is a continual learning process with focus and evaluation at its core.

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