November 30, 2015

Community-health evaluations reap greater success when grant makers use a participatory approach



For underrepresented communities especially, partnering with grantees makes sense, says CCHE’s Maggie Jones.

by Maggie Jones, MPH, evaluation services manager at the Center for Community Health and Evaluation (CCHE), Group Health Research Institute

Evaluations are stronger when they engage the people they are meant to influence. That was the message of a panel discussion that I participated in this summer at the Grantmakers for Effective Organization’s 2015 Learning Conference. The conference brought together 300 leaders in philanthropy to discuss how partnering leads to better results.

Maggie Jones, MPH

I was joined on the panel by Susan Zepeda, president/CEO of Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, who blogged about the session, and Maddy Frey, director of evaluation at the Healthcare Georgia Foundation. Both foundations—with whom we at CCHE have partnered for many years—share our commitment to engaging key stakeholders in evaluation efforts.

We talked to the audience of grantmakers about how they could increase the relevance and usefulness of their evaluation efforts by engaging their grantees throughout the evaluation process—from initial planning to disseminating the results.

Participatory approaches improve evaluations by getting input from all key stakeholders. Grantmakers and grantees work in partnership to measure the impact of community health improvements. The model differs from the more traditional top-down process in which grantmakers dictate the measures for grantees' reports. Susan and Maddy talked about their foundations’ efforts to embed a participatory evaluation approach into their grantmaking processes. They both noted that this approach has helped create stronger relationships with their grantees—because it demonstrates respect and value for the grantee perspective—and made evaluation results more meaningful to both their organizations and the communities they are supporting.

Whys and hows of participatory evaluation

Participatory evaluation is particularly valuable when working with underrepresented communities that are usually the subjects of the evaluation rather than partners in the evaluation. Being part of the evaluation helps grantees feel ownership and enthusiasm about the process, especially if they are receiving timely and actionable information about how they can improve their work and track their progress over time. Engaging grantees in evaluation also helps build their evaluation capacity and can model how to use data to demonstrate results and drive improvement. However, achieving these goals means overcoming challenges that we discussed in our session. Examples we discussed with the audience include:

  • Participatory approaches take longer. In designing initiatives, grantmakers need to allow sufficient time to have genuine engagement from grantees. A funded planning period can help facilitate participation without losing the opportunity for baseline data collection.
  • This model requires trust and candor between the grantmaker and grantees. All partners must be transparent and honest about what information they need and what is feasible. This partnership model may be new for grantees, so grantmakers need to communicate expectations and process clearly, reassure grantees that their input is valued, and demonstrate that grantee feedback is being used. This level of partnership requires time to develop given the inherent power dynamics between grantmakers and grantees.

CCHE’s role in large-scale funding initiatives is to serve as the evaluation partner for both grantmakers and grantees. As a third party, we can engage both parties in candid conversations that they may not be able to have with each another given their power dynamics—particularly at the outset of a new initiative. We are committed to participatory approaches to evaluation because we believe it enables our partners to have a greater impact on their community. Here’s how:

  • Participation in the evaluation design leads to shared ownership of and commitment to the evaluation.
  • Ownership and commitment lead to better quality data from the grantmaker and grantees because the measures are appropriate, relevant, and useful.
  • Better quality data leads to a more robust evaluation.
  • A more robust evaluation increases the likelihood that the results will be trusted and used to drive improvement and document achievements.
  • Programs and investments that make continual improvements are more effective and will have more of a positive impact on their communities.

Our mission is “to improve the health of communities through collaborative approaches to planning, assessment and evaluation.” A participatory approach is critical to our ability to meet our mission. We are fortunate to have partners—like my co-panelists—who share our commitment to using evaluation to increase the impact of investments on the health of our communities.