Using Metrics to Encourage Innovation

By introducing a learning agenda, funders can encourage innovation, drive philanthropic dollars to the best programs, and become better partners to grantees.

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How do funders and grantees communicate? Generally, it is through grant proposals at the beginning of the relationship and through reports at the end. These proposals and results usually articulate expectations in terms of outputs and outcomes.

With good intentions, grantmakers want to know if their money is going to good use and hold their grantees accountable for achieving strong results. Grantees want to show that they have done the work they said they would do. Metrics are not a bad thing, but, if the goal of measurement is to encourage nonprofit executive directors and their teams to pay attention to a changing landscape, listen to their beneficiaries, and notice when a strategy isn’t working, traditional metric-based contracts between funders and grantees tend to hinder rather than help.

So how can funders and grantees adjust metrics to encourage experimentation, learning, and adaptation?

At the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, we partner with social entrepreneurs to develop their innovative ideas and build strong organizations to scale. As a core value, we also encourage the entrepreneurs we fund to learn and adjust as they go, whether that means adapting programming or deciding to fundraise in a new way. We changed our grant agreements a couple of years ago to reflect this philosophy. Alongside determining programmatic and organizational metrics, our grantees develop learning agendas. Learning agendas summarize what questions an organization hopes to answer in the coming year. These questions provide an alternate baseline for evaluation that evolves over time. Running a start-up is like running a series of mini experiments. Leaders use data and intuition to make decisions; they also learn as they go. Funders should want their grantees to change course if the original plan isn’t working.

A good example is FoodCorps, a nationwide team of leaders that connects kids to real food and helps them grow up healthy. The organization first developed traditional metrics such as number of children reached, number of school gardens built, and increase in school budgets allocated to healthy food. As a second step, we asked co-founder Curt Ellis and his team to develop a learning agenda. They looked out a year, two years, and three years, and asked themselves, “What do we need to know to plan for the future, improve the program, and allocate resources more effectively?”

FoodCorps’ learning agenda in the first year, 2011, included questions such as: What makes a field partner good at this work? How solid is our delegated field management? How do we measure our impact on obesity? And what are minimum criteria for impact success at a school?

Over the last two years, FoodCorps has made adjustments to its model as it goes; it has learned what is most effective, how best to staff its program, and how to work with partners in the field more successfully. As one consequence, the team has concluded that the organization’s unit of change will be a healthy school environment rather than a BMI level of each child. The team also has learned what to look for in partners and is sharing best practices between different state programs. For example, programs that have strong ties in the local communities provide credibility—with principals, community members, and parents—to their service members. Finally, FoodCorps has added a layer of second-year, in-state, service-member staff, who train and assist first-year service members. The organization has made substantive and successful changes to its program, measurement and evaluation, and operations all as a result of asking the right questions.

In business, we are encouraged to make bets, fail fast and early, and adjust. The addition of the learning agenda to our range of milestones reminds us that when you make a decision to try something new, it might not always work, and that’s OK. The outcome is not, for example, that you expanded to a new city or changed your delivery model. The outcome is that you learned how well it worked. From there, you can use that information to boost the new activity, hold it steady, or cancel it. Philanthropic dollars are precious, and the problems in the world are too big to keep investing in efforts that don’t work.

We need to get better at taking risks, and we need to encourage our grantees to do the same. They need latitude to learn while they are operating. Our contracts with them need to say, “We know you are going to try new things. We like that. We want you to learn from your experiments. And we want you to make smart decisions from what you learn.” In this way, we, as funders, can encourage innovation, drive philanthropic dollars to the best programs, and become better partners for our grantees.

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  • BY george myers

    ON November 14, 2013 03:15 PM

    Thanks for an encouraging and empowering article. Too often the metrics get defined by the funder, and it becomes a burden and not helpful. The best is when the organization figures out for itself what is important to measure and evaluate. This becomes a learning and capacity building opportunity. The funder needs to hold them accountable to follow through. And evaluation never helps anyone if there is not ownership to make adjustments and changes based on what you find out.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON November 15, 2013 01:58 PM

    This past summer the Learning By Giving Foundation ( hosted a MOOC to encourage participants to learn more about philanthropy.  More than 1000 people participated over several weeks.

    I’d like to see other philanthropists sponsor MOOCs around specific focus areas. For instance, the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation could host a MOOC focused on connecting organizations who focus on feeding kids helping them grow up healthy and encourage participation of other organizations doing this work, as well as other donors, policy makers, researchers and stakeholders.

    In this section of my library I point to several articles about MOOCs.

    MOOCs are an emerging tool that can support on-going learning and connectivity among people working in different social benefit categories and lead to a much deeper commitment to learning and innovation, along with a commitment to provide the dollars needed to make this type of learning and innovation possible in many places.

  • Louis Boorstin's avatar

    BY Louis Boorstin

    ON November 15, 2013 02:59 PM

    Thank you for sharing this.  In a world increasingly focused on measurable outcomes, you’ve provided a practical tool to promote organizational growth and learning.  In this way, grant-makers can help grantees figure out how to get better at what they do over time in addition to focusing on annual delivery of social benefits.  Too often this type of organizational development takes place at the margin, and the ‘learning agenda’ approach formalizes this as an explicit goal and metric.  Great advice.

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