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Balancing long-term thinking, short-term metrics, and flexible project planning

February 24, 2021

Balance-scaledOver the past several decades, a number of different critiques of nonprofit work have emerged.  Inevitably, these critiques have a strong basis — they identify real and specific issues in how nonprofits work — but collectively they may present a problem by calling for approaches that aren’t easily reconciled. That's happening in the current moment with the tension between 1) the call of the evidence-based practice approach for rigorous evaluation and theory development; 2) the "new philanthropy" emphasis on trust-based management structures and long-term planning; and 3) the entrepreneurial approach to iterative work. Each of these perspectives brings something valuable to nonprofit work, but they don't sit easily with each other. In the work of our foundation, One Earth Future (OEF), we've developed one way of bridging these three approaches. This model may be useful for other nonprofits, if funders are willing to support it.

One dominant force in modern nonprofit work is the call for strong evidence. Despite its prevalence, the modern focus on "evidence-based practice" is only a little more than twenty years old, growing out of a mid-1990s emphasis on better structuring learning in government and social impact work. The movement has been incredibly impactful, undeniably improving some specific programs and arguably improving the ability of social impact work overall to deliver effective results. The 2019 Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to development economists Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer for their impact in driving the approach.

Alongside these successes, the heavy emphasis on strong theories of change and strict monitoring and evaluation (M&E) structures has been criticized for a funding model that treats nonprofit efforts as bounded and discrete projects that can be quickly started or stopped, rather than as an ongoing engagement that is informed and adapted accordingly by M&E within a complex system. Writing in 2019, Landesa co-founder Tim Handstad characterized this approach as "philanthropy as day trading," pointing out that systemic impact requires systemic engagement over a long period of time. Such impact also often requires both adaptive learning and agile organizations that change as the social contexts change — things that a rigid evidence approach is not always best at delivering.

Other critiques against rigidity and excessive M&E approaches have pointed out how these can reiterate colonial power dynamics and take up extensive staff time that could be better spent on delivering impact. This "new philanthropy" approach has wrestled with questions of how to address these issues and develop long-term thinking and locally-developed interventions based on trusting relationships with funding recipients involving longer-term funding and collaborative projects.

In parallel with these two discussions, an influx of entrepreneurs into funding roles has led to an injection of entrepreneurial models in nonprofit thinking since the 2000s. These models often emphasize a tight feedback loop between goals, evaluation, and strategy, as well as a "fail fast" assumption that initial models will not be accurate, requiring institutional learning to move forward. This model treats evaluation as a learning exercise rather than an issue of accountability, allowing more effective iteration but risking incompatibility with the more rigid terms of traditional funders.

In terms of OEF's work in peacebuilding, each of these perspectives has merit: the need for long-term, systemic intervention is very clear in peacebuilding, as is the need for adaptive approaches that fit changing environments. At the same time, we tend to agree with the criticism that without a feedback loop between plans, activities, and assessment, "most interventions don't work, most interventions aren't evaluated, and most evaluations are not used." In building an operating foundation focused on peacebuilding, we’ve worked to develop an approach that blends a long-term approach with strong measurement and adaptive learning.

We start with a commitment to the long term. OEF is organized as an operating foundation, with core funding that allows us to commit to — and invest in — long-term work irrespective of the demands of external funders. When OEF chooses to invest in solutions for a conflict context, we do so knowing that the work may take decades.

Secondly, we develop our initial projects based on an assessment of where we believe our work can make observable steps forward in addressing underlying issues driving conflict. Our initial program work is supported by an evidence-based theory of change and our impact is measured by multidimensional assessments of our work embedded from the outset. Once our impact has been proven to our satisfaction, we share with our funding partners our theory of change and the evidence of our impact. This means that our projects tend to naturally evolve from initial ideas through rapid iteration and deepening engagement with local stakeholders into more developed (but necessarily more rigid) programs that look more like traditional nonprofit interventions.

Our early work on economic development in Somalia, for instance, began with a relatively small-scale set of loan-based development projects in several of the more stable regions in that country, informed by consultations with local communities but still somewhat as an outsider with respect to local networks. The work contributed to the local economy but by itself wouldn’t lead to peace. However, it did give us an opportunity to learn more about how to work effectively in the region, and as we compiled lessons learned through the intensive evaluation of our work, we were able to grow our networks of local partners and adapt our approach to meet the specific challenges of the local context. Once we had solid evidence that demonstrated we were part of a local community and that our interventions worked, we approached traditional funders to expand our work.

One Earth Future's approach bridges the tensions between the different perspectives in the nonprofit sector. We accept, and weigh carefully, the need for long-term commitment to our engagement when we begin operations. We work with and for local communities. We acknowledge that work toward lasting social impact needs to be evidence-based in both theory and lessons-learned, and that we need to assess interventions systematically to identify how to improve impact. At the same time, we understand that these metrics must be a map and not a straightjacket: their purpose is to inform and improve our strategy, not to limit our work. We regularly "move the goalposts," changing the metrics we use to accommodate dynamically evolved strategic goals that arise from changing contexts and lessons learned.

We're able to operate this way because the funding that supports OEF is flexible enough in its design to allow it. We encourage other funders, even funders interested in more traditional approaches to monitoring and planning, to build more room into their plans for iterative work with local partners over the long-term.

Conor_Seyle_Marcel_Arsenault_PhilanTopicConor Seyle is a senior strategic advisor for the One Earth Future Foundation. His work there supports OEF’s mission to deliver effective evidence-based systems for eliminating root causes of armed conflict and, in particular, to develop better systems for governance and coordination across organizations in peacebuilding efforts globally.  

Marcel Arsenault is the founder and CEO of One Earth Future, the co-founder (with Cynda Collins Arsenault) and chair of  PAX sapiens, and the chair, CEO, and founder of Real Capital Solutions. His philanthropy is focused on engaging long-term global issues, with an emphasis on iterative and evidence-based approaches to improving social impact. 

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