Evaluating Social Innovation

Published: August 2012

Type: Publication

Common evaluation approaches and practices can constrain innovation. This brief offers lessons about an emerging evaluation approach—developmental evaluation—which supports the adaptation that is so crucial to innovation.

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Headshot-tanya-beer

The front edge of the philanthropic sector has spent the last decade experimenting with innovative grantmaking in the hopes of triggering significant and sustainable change. But the sector’s approach to evaluation is not keeping pace with these innovations.

Traditional formative and summative evaluation approaches are no match for new and innovative programs and initiatives that experiment with solutions to complex social problems. In many cases, traditional evaluation approaches fail to meet the fast-paced information needs of philanthropic decision makers and innovators in the midst of complex social change efforts. At worst, the application of traditional evaluation approaches to innovative change initiatives may even decrease the likelihood of success because they restrict implementers to pre-set plans that lose their relevance as the initiative unfolds.

This brief explores ways that common evaluation approaches and practices constrain innovation and offers lessons about an emerging evaluation approach—developmental evaluation—which supports the adaptation that is so crucial to innovation. This brief explores what it takes for foundations to put this kind of evaluation into practice.

For which kinds of grantmaking strategies should funders consider using developmental evaluation? What organizational conditions are necessary for it to work? How can grantmakers grapple with the challenging questions that developmental evaluation raises about innovation, accountability, rigor, and adaptation?

Drawing on the reflections and insights of foundation staff and evaluators who have experimented with developmental evaluation, philanthropy is called on to re-envision the role, purpose, and processes of evaluation so that social innovations have a better chance of success.