Posted on October 20, 2020
Knowledge Sharing is a Mission Imperative: Why We Cannot Afford to Keep Evaluation Findings to Ourselves and How We Can Do Better
- Janet Camarena Candid
- Ashleigh Halverstadt S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation
Our Open Letter
As members of the Funder and Evaluator Affinity Network (FEAN), a national network of evaluation professionals composed of both foundation staff and consultants, we are committed to deepening the impact of evaluation and learning on philanthropic practice and the causes we serve. Through our work, we have identified a critical challenge in evaluation that urgently requires our joint attention.
As a sector, we are reticent to share lessons from our work—authentically, transparently, and in partnership with the nonprofits and communities we support. This reticence undermines our collective ability to do the very thing we are charged to do: improve practice and advance the public good.
As we write this in 2020, our sector is being tested like never before; we are responding to unanticipated global health and economic crises, while examining the roles we play in magnifying or mitigating long-standing racial injustices. Access to reliable field knowledge is critical to ensuring that our responses are informed rather than impulsive, inclusive rather than exclusionary, and effective rather than ephemeral. Now more than ever, we cannot afford to engage in funder-centric inquiry, requiring nonprofits and communities to supply information that has no clear benefit to them or to the field.
When we choose not to share what we are learning from evaluation, we are not only impeding the efficiency and effectiveness of the sector, but also falling short of our responsibility to the communities we serve. The scale and complexity of the problems we aim to solve require that we account for the results of our investments, build on each other’s successes and failures, and learn from and with our partners on the ground. None of us can hope to advance change alone; only when we share knowledge can we shed enough light on the systems and structures we operate in to find our way forward.
Yet too often, we extract information from nonprofits and communities for evaluative purposes, only to keep the learning to ourselves, or perhaps share it with a few like- minded peers. This drains precious time and resources as we all struggle to find the information we need, creates unproductive echo chambers where ideas go unchallenged, and perpetuates the divide between knowledge haves and have-nots, curtailing learning and advancement among those closest to the work. We practice evaluation precisely because we believe that knowledge is a form of power. And in a sector designed to serve the public good, we affirm that knowledge should be treated as a public asset, so that what you know doesn’t depend on who you know.
We recognize that improving how we share evaluation lessons will require shifts in how we work, both as foundation and evaluation professionals. In this call to action, we invite you to join us in making knowledge sharing a mission imperative.
Foundation leaders say that transparency among funders about what is and isn’t working—evaluative knowledge—could significantly increase programmatic effectiveness; but ironically, this is also the information they are least likely to share. In fact, only 14% of foundation evaluation staff consider external dissemination of evaluation findings to be a top priority.
What is holding foundations and evaluators back? Grantmakers commonly cite several barriers to knowledge sharing, which relate to both the capacity and the culture of philanthropic organizations:
- We are too busy.
- We don’t want to put grantees or the strategy at risk.
- We are reluctant to share unfavorable findings, which could be perceived as failure.
- We are uncertain about the quality and/or relevance of evaluation findings.
- We question whether the knowledge is useful, timely, or broadly applicable “enough” to share.
Although these concerns are legitimate, they do not outweigh the clear benefits of knowledge sharing, or the risks of not sharing. These barriers can be overcome if we choose to make sharing a priority.
If you have a stake in philanthropic evaluation and an interest in advancing knowledge sharing, we urge you to join the movement by adopting at least one of the following practices and signing this public call to action. We are all in different stages of our knowledge sharing journeys. Find an entry point that works for you, and together, we can make knowledge sharing a common practice.
Put processes in place to make knowledge sharing the default:
- Create an open knowledge policy articulating how you will share materials that are funded or produced by your organization. Having a blanket open knowledge policy saves time by eliminating the need to craft and review a new policy for each evaluation. Share it on your website and with current and prospective grantees, evaluation, and funding partners.
- Adopt an approach to intellectual property that enables knowledge to be shared and used, such as an open licensing policy that allows others to distribute, adapt, and build on your material. Include this intellectual property policy in grant and contract agreements.
- Ask grantees, evaluation, and funding partners to deposit knowledge products in open repositories such as IssueLab, Open Educational Resources, and Open Health Data, so the resources can be widely accessed by anyone, not just by visitors to your organization’s website.
- Use open standards and digital object identifiers for knowledge materials on your website, so they can be easily discovered and tracked. Learn more knowledge sharing processes from Candid’s Open for Good GrantCraft Guide.
Establish norms that maximize the value of knowledge sharing, while minimizing real and perceived risk:
- Build an expectation of knowledge sharing into evaluation projects from the start, including a plan for packaging findings in an accessible, useful way and disseminating them internally and externally. This will save time and effort trying to negotiate an approach to sharing later. Below you will find a set of discussion questions and a dissemination planning tool to help jumpstart the process.
- Build extra time and resources into evaluation and grantee engagements to support knowledge sharing. Make time to engage grantees in developing evaluation questions, methods, and products that will serve their learning needs. This will enable stakeholders to share ownership of the knowledge building process – and derive greater value from it.
- Identify, assess, and address repercussions of knowledge sharing at the start of the project and at every dissemination opportunity, grounding decision-making in the “first, do no harm” principle. Seek opportunities to use knowledge sharing as a tool to advance your mission but be cautious and make exceptions for dissemination efforts that pose a real risk to grantees and partners.
- Don’t be a gatekeeper or let perfect be the enemy of the good. Be completely transparent about how evaluation findings were reached and what their limitations are, and then let readers decide for themselves whether the findings are valid, what they mean, and how to use them.
- Continue to work on your internal knowledge sharing practice. Cultivating a learning culture is not easy, but you can begin by setting up knowledge exchange sessions with your colleagues. If thoughtfully framed within an “amnesty” context, internal learning sessions can build your organization’s knowledge sharing muscle, creating space to explore and apply lessons learned with minimal risk.
If you share our conviction that we can have a greater impact in the sector when we are able to better access and leverage the lessons of our colleagues, then please consider taking a first step with us!
To join us in this growing effort, select at least one action from the list above to commit to, share this invitation with others in your network, and use the “sign on” form below to add your name to this movement. We can become more impactful if we treat knowledge sharing as a mission imperative, collectively shifting professional norms, step by step, practice by practice, for the benefit of us all.
- Janet CamarenaDirector, Candid Learning
Candid Action Team Facilitator
- Ashleigh HalverstadtSenior Evaluation and Learning Officer
S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation Action Team Facilitator
- Kimberlin ButlerDirector of Foundation Engagement
Mathematica Open Letter Coordinator
- Gabriela FitzPrincipal, Research Lead
Think Twice LLC Open Letter Coordinator
- Karuna S. Chibber, DrPHProject Director/Senior Evaluator
John Snow Inc. Discussion Guide Coordinator
- Yvonne BelangerDirector of Learning & Evaluation
- Lori NascimentoSenior Learning and Evaluation Manager
The California Endowment
- Rachele EspirituFounding Partner
- Sandra SilvaChange Specialist
- Aisha RiosFounder
- Clare NolanCo-Founder
- Sonia Taddy-SandinoCo-Founder
- Meg LongPresident
- Bess RothenbergSenior Director, Strategy and Learning
- Hallie PreskillManaging Director
- Lindsay HansonPrincipal
- Christina KuoSenior Strategist
- Kendall GuthrieIndependent Strategy & Evaluation Consultant
- KaYing VangFounder/Principal Consultant
Innovate Data Studios
- Stacie ChernerDirector of Learning and Evaluation
Jim Joseph Foundation
- Sarah StachowiakCEO
- Rhonda SchlangenIndependent evaluation consultant
Rhonda Schlangen Consulting, LLC
- Efrain GutierrezObama Foundation
Head of Impact and Evaluation
- Anne GienappDirector
- Amy ArbretonEvaluation Officer
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
- Matthew CarrStrategy, Learning & Evaluation Director
Walton Family Foundation
Download a copy of the letter, which includes a discussion guide and planning tool designed to help you kick off every evaluation effort with the right set of questions to plan for effectively sharing what you learn as a result of your work.