Lessons From a Grantee Capacity Building Project

Below are key lessons from theory of change work I led recently as a consultant to early childhood grantees of San Francisco’s Bella Vista Foundation (BVF). A long-time strategy and evaluation consultant to foundations and nonprofits, I offered a workshop introducing theory of change to grantees in the foundation’s Infants & Families Connecting (IFC) program. After the training, BVF Executive Director Mary Gregory invited groups to apply for “mini-grants,” to cover a few hours of my time to assist them in growing their capacity by developing their own theory of change.

BVF’s leaders’ long-term goal for the mini-grants technical assistance project was to increase the foundation’s ability, down the road, to evaluate the social impact of its IFC grantmaking. “As we developed our theory of change,” Mary said, “it became clear that an early step would be to increase our grantees’ ability to better assess their own progress and be able to improve their programs.” Such increased grantee evaluation and learning capacity would eventually allow BVF to connect the dots between the foundation’s own theory of change and the IFC grantees’ family and child outcomes.

I began the project by speaking with leaders of the organizations that applied for grants to learn about their current challenges and how they felt a theory of change might assist them. I worked with five IFC grantees to develop their theory of change; each planned to use the planning process and resulting document in different ways. One group intended to use the draft created by a small team to kick-off strategic planning with the board a few months later. Two groups were eager to have new board and staff members gain clarity on how their multi-faceted programs served a common vision. Another group’s leaders wanted to re-organize the organization based on intended community-level results, while the last grantee sought both an outcomes framework and a detailed implementation plan to launch a new department.

Despite wide differences in organizational needs, communities, clients, size, history, and evaluation capacity, all five grantees were enthusiastic about the benefits of the small projects. They offered such feedback as:

  • “The process gave us a framework for making decisions based on our intended outcomes.”
  • “We now have consensus on our ultimate intended impact, target population and program outcomes. This is changing how we talk about the agency.”
  • “The theory of change planning helped managers combat a sense of isolation from working in silo-ed programs.”
  • “This process was very helpful for those of us who are new to step back, look at the big picture, think about what our work is for, and consider how we go about achieving our goals.”

The one complaint I heard was that the mini-grants did not cover enough of my time to help teams complete their theory of change planning and the often-challenging flow charts.

From BVF’s vantage point, the capacity-building project was cost-effective; said Mary, “We got a lot of bang for the buck.” Each grantee made progress based on where they were on the path to conducting data-driven internal program assessment. She noted, “Some groups were just starting to think about these things. Others used the technical assistance to take their evaluation capacity to the next level.”

Mary and I learned several lessons relevant to other funders seeking to build grantee evaluation capacity, via theory of change, logic modeling or related technical assistance, including:

  • It is important for a foundation to have a high tolerance for meeting grantees where they are and to appreciate modest, incremental progress.
  • Each organization used the project to go a bit deeper based on and tailored to its own needs.
  • Theory of change planning is challenging. It requires deep knowledge of a group’s target population as well as field best practices. It involves critical thinking, reflection, and some soul-searching about why the organization’s leaders believe their programs lead to changes that build upon each other to the ultimate vision of positive social change.
  • Both BVF and participating grantees found the work productive—for different reasons. The foundation was pleased that the theory of change planning advanced each groups’ evaluation capacity (and the potential for more alignment of activities with intended impact). For the grantees, the process was inspiring and motivating to the board and staff who participated. Several executive directors were also delighted to have a handy flow chart to assist them and other leaders in communicating the how and why of a complex organization and for orienting new board and staff.

“If I had one disappointment,” Mary said, “it was that not all our IFC grantees took us up on the technical assistance offer.”

What have your experiences been helping grantees build their evaluation capacity and advance along the so-called “internal evaluation continuum”?

For more about Bella Vista’s theory of change, see Mary’s Glasspockets blog For more about theory of change, see GrantCraft’s Mapping Change: Using Theory of Change to Guide Planning and Evaluation