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Talking About Impact

December 09, 2009

(Larry McGill is the Foundation Center’s vice president for research. In his last post, he wrote about the debate surrounding the NCRP report Criteria for Philanthropy at its Best.)

Leadership Underlying all philanthropic work is the belief that we can create or facilitate positive social change. And most of us believe that we do. We can cite examples as evidence.

But how do we know if we are working as effectively as we could be? How do we know that our way of working is as effective as other ways of working?

The belief that philanthropic work can make a difference is nowhere stronger than it is in women's funds. And there is no doubting that women's funds are doing extraordinary work. A quick read of the annual reports issued by the International Network of Women's Funds, the Women's Funding Network, and especially the reports of place-based funds such as Semillas in Mexico or the Women's Fund in Georgia, provides ample and compelling evidence of this. Don't take my word for it -- take a look!

Now, women's funds are poised to help the field rethink how the real-world impact of social change organizations can be specified, assessed, and fed back through a virtuous learning cycle that allows philanthropy to continuously hone its strategies to bring about real change. At a meeting last week convened by the program on women's issues at the Oak Foundation in Geneva, representatives of seventeen women's funds from around the world met with a group of researchers and representatives of philanthropic support organizations to discuss how to measure and assess the social impact of their work.

It should be acknowledged, of course, that many tools, methods, and best practices designed to assess social impact have been developed in recent years -- 150 of them can be accessed through a new web portal called TRASI (Tools and Resources for Assessing Social Impact), developed by the Foundation Center in partnership with McKinsey & Company. Other organizations, such as FSG Social Impact Advisors, InterAction, and the Innovation Network, are also rich sources of information on the challenges of measuring social impact.

At the meeting, tough questions were raised concerning the applicability of existing measurement and evaluation methodologies to the task of assessing the impact of women's funds. Others who attended the meeting are more capable than I of articulating these challenges, and I invite them to post their own thoughts about this.

For me, the meeting was remarkable for many reasons, but what struck me most was the deep, experience-based understanding of the issues associated with monitoring and evaluation efforts that each participant brought to the discussion. Put another way, for this group, the discussion really mattered. Assessing impact is important, yes; but at what cost, when there is so much work to be done. And if we are going to try to measure social impact, let's make sure to keep it real by grounding it in the pragmatic realities of the situations in which we operate and the people with whom we are working.

This meeting was also remarkable at a personal level. I was privileged to be one of just two men in attendance, and had the opportunity to participate fully. What I discovered was that it was impossible for this man -- an outsider to the group in so many ways (in terms of gender, upbringing, experiences, and unearned advantages social, economic and political) -- to work side-by-side with a group of women of such deep commitment and accomplishment without being personally affected, indeed "changed." For me, courage and strength have a new face -- in fact, more than two dozen new faces. And even that isn't quite right -- because linked inseparably with each of these remarkable women are the lives of countless other women whom they would tell you are the most remarkable of all.

Working with these women, it has never been clearer to me why we do the work we do. Watch this space and see what happens when women's funds bring their collective talents, passion, and lived experience in making change happen to the task of re-imagining how social impact might be assessed. Let's talk, share, and learn.

-- Larry McGill

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Posted by Indira Jena  |   December 15, 2009 at 07:42 AM

For me the Imapct Assessment Workshop at Geneva was a significant milestone insofar as the women's funding movement is concerned.

This movement that started with the mission of strengthening the women's movement by creating access to and control over that most important of resources, 'MONEY' has been picking up momentum with the formation of more and more south based women's funds and networking at an international level.

As indigenous women's funds we do not simply fund - we get quite inextricably linked to the challenges that the women's groups face. We understand the difficulty of women's rights activists in getting into the muddle of assessing impact. However it is necessary for us to evolve some friendly tools by carving out the most suitable from what is already there.

We have planned a sharing meeting from 25th - 27th Jan where our past, present and potential grantee partners will be involved in a three day exercise.

Srilata, can you hear me?!!

Woudl love ideas on taking this forward


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