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Evaluating the Funder's Contribution in Place-Based Initiatives 

11-25-2019 10:59


Place-based philanthropy is an approach where the funder makes major, long-term investments in multiple groups within a community with the intent of stimulating comprehensive solutions to issues of concern to the foundation and the community. Funders understandably want to know about the return on these investments, but evaluating return is complicated by the complexity of the change process and the large number of competing influences. This paper presents a form of contribution analysis that can be applied in place-based initiatives to characterize the funder’s influence and effect.


This approach to contribution analysis involves: 1) delineating the lines of work where the funder sought to have an influence; 2) assessing how each line of work has moved forward over the course of the initiative; 3) determining the role the funder intended to play in advancing each line of work (either driver, activator/facilitator, enhancer, or supporter); 4) interviewing key informants to determine what role the funder actually played and how it carried out that role; and 5) making an informed judgment as to whether the work would have developed to the same extent if the funder had not been involved.


This methodology was developed in our evaluation of the Clinton Foundation’s Community Health Transformation (CHT) model which was implemented in 6 communities across the U.S. between 2012-2019. We assessed the Foundation’s contribution to 25 distinct lines of work with regard to its role in advancing the work, the specific forms of support that were most crucial, what the work has accomplished to date, and what would have been different without the CHT intervention. Findings were used by the Foundation to document its contribution to various constituents, as well as to understand what aspects of the CHT strategy are most effective in fostering impactful health-improvement work. We believe that this methodology for contribution analysis is useful for any place-based initiative where the funder supports multiple organizations, coalitions, etc. as they develop, implement and sustain large-scale projects to improve community conditions.




Foundations are increasingly recognizing that in order to achieve the large-scale, long-lasting impacts they are seeking, they need to move beyond supporting specific projects or organizations. Instead, they are investing more broadly and comprehensively in community-change efforts through strategies such as collaborative problem-solving initiatives (e.g., collective impact), policy advocacy, agenda setting, public will building, leadership development, community organizing and culture change. Much of this work is being carried out with a “place-based” orientation, in which the foundation provides financial and other resources to a variety of local organizations and stakeholders over an extended period of time.


When foundations adopt a place-based orientation, their strategies are often comprehensive, nuanced and emergent. They aspire to reach and influence a large set of people and organizations, but at the same time recognizing that they are entering into a complex landscape full of factors that also influence those actors. This poses a daunting challenge for evaluation. On the one hand, the foundation is making major investments with the expectation of major pay-off (beyond what could be achieved with one-off grants). These are precisely the sorts of investments where evaluation is warranted – for both learning and accountability purposes. On the other hand, these are situations where it is difficult to disentangle the effect that a particular funder is having on whatever outcomes might be observed; would the same outcomes have occurred if the funder had not been involved? Moreover, these tend to be initiatives dealing with entrenched issues (sometimes multi-generational); tangible pay-offs may not occur for many years, possibly after the foundation has exited from the work.


Foundations involved in place-based work have largely come to recognize that they can’t use evaluation to calculate precise, objective assessments of their impact on the problem they are seeking to remedy. They no longer believe that they will be able to assess attribution (i.e., the change in outcome that occurred because of the foundation’s support), and instead have grown more comfortable with using contribution as the basis for evaluation.


A growing body of literature in the evaluation field provides guidance on how evaluate the contribution of a funder, but these articles and tools have generally addressed situations where the funder supports a particular project, organization, coalition or campaign. The situation is more complex in the case of place-based involving multiple levels of activity cutting across different sectors, especially in instances where the funder actively engages in the change process by bringing either its own staff or intermediary organizations into the community to stimulate new action, bring actors together around shared interests, build capacity, co-create projects, etc. Contribution analysis needs to assess how these supports and forms of engagement affect local actors and how those proximal effects translate into longer-term outcomes that matter, both to the foundation and the community.


Through our evaluation of the Clinton Foundation’s Community Health Transformation (CHT) model, we have developed a methodology for evaluating how the Foundation’s resources and actions contributed distinct lines of work within each participating community. This session describes that methodology, shows how it was used to evaluate the Foundation’s contribution to health improvement within 5 communities, and points to the range of situations where the methodology can help foundations understand what they have accomplished and how their strategies can be made more impactful.


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PPT presented at AEA 2019