The world around us is constantly changing. Across the core areas of work at the Packard Foundation, this means we need good ways to take stock of the landscape, understand how things are going, where we can improve, and how we learn and continue to evolve our approaches toward ever greater positive impact for people, communities, and environments.
Our monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) work is grounded in the Foundation’s values of integrity, commitment to effectiveness, and respect for all people. Having a strong set of values, practices, policies, and support in collecting information about progress and reflecting on it to adapt is key to achieving our shared goals. These values, and the footing they provide for our MEL work, are one of the main reasons I love working at the Foundation.
In 2017, the Evaluation and Learning team decided to practice what we preach and commissioned ORS Impact to evaluate our current principles and practices to understand what has been working and where we could do more, or different, or better in service of our ultimate impact.
As you’ll see in the report, Moving from Good to Great, there’s plenty that’s going well, but we wanted to focus on how we could do better. We heard opportunities to ensure our grantee partners and those we seek to serve are better engaged in the design of our research and evaluation—and that they are learning from these efforts alongside us. We heard opportunities to improve our processes and tools for reporting and data collection. And that staff and grantee partners alike need support strengthening their MEL capacities.
Based on the results of our assessment and follow-up discussions with Foundation staff, we are taking the following steps to improve our work:
- Refresh the principles. We heard that our MEL Principles served us well over the last five years and that there is opportunity to further lean into our MEL philosophy by elevating the role of grantee partners and the people we seek to help through our grantmaking. The new MEL Principles have been slightly updated to clarify how we plan to engage these partners.
- Streamline internal processes. For example, we know from our review there are opportunities for us to improve our theories of change by better incorporating grantee partners in the development and refinement of these frameworks. We plan to update strategy and MEL guidelines to ensure they are useful and right-sized for program staff and grantee partners.
- Strengthen internal staff capacity. Here at the Foundation program teams are responsible for implementing our MEL Principles. Because the issues we work on are vastly different (ranging from increasing children’s health insurance coverage to decreasing overfishing), the way we implement, and staff MEL varies. Program’s role implementing our MEL philosophy is critical to ensure MEL systems are designed to inform strategy team decision making and responsive to grantee input. Internally we will partner with staff to identify and close MEL competencies gaps.
- Strengthen grantee MEL capacity. At the front lines of strategy work, grantees’ ability to collect data about what works and what doesn’t is critical to enabling them to adapt to changing context and needs. To date, we’ve invested little in either understanding existing MEL capacity or systematically supporting it. Moving forward the Evaluation and Learning team will partner with programs, our MEL consultants, and our Organizational Effectiveness team to explore grantee MEL capacity grants.
- Field building. Conventional evaluation methods, existing data platforms and forums for sharing learning are struggling to meet the growing demands for MEL to inform the complex and rapidly evolving strategies we support. Foundation staff, grantee partners, and our external consultants now, more than ever, need to be cross-disciplinary—experts in traditional social science methods, group facilitation, data visualization, and experts in newer and still emerging disciplines including geographic information system (GIS), data and computer-science approach. We will explore opportunities in the fields we work in where we can influence and support efforts to strengthen and diversify evaluation capacity.
This examination enabled us to step back, gather feedback, and take stock of our MEL approach. The shifts described above are important tweaks to ensure our MEL practice aligns with our Principles. We recognize that truly living our MEL philosophy is a way of working. With the changes above, we seek to strengthen our culture of reflection and learning, demonstrate our value for feedback and data, and acknowledge and support the time, skills, and effort needed for MEL work. Our call to action for you is to let us know when we fall short in these areas and to share with us, candidly, what we might do better. And, we commit to sharing back with you what we’re learning in these efforts. Please stay tuned.