Upcoming Changes for the Evaluation Roundtable

Published: February 2020

Type: Insight

The Evaluation Roundtable's goal, model, and leadership will be changing in 2020.

Julia Coffman, Headshot

The Evaluation Roundtable is a network of foundation leaders that aims to improve evaluation and learning practice in philanthropy. Founded in 1989 by Patti Patrizi, the network includes evaluation and learning leaders from over 100 foundations in the U.S. and Canada. It is a preeminent resource for ideas and information on how foundations approach evaluation and learning.

The Evaluation Roundtable is based on the idea that helping people connect deeply with new ideas and with each other will speed the development and spread of solutions to evaluation challenges in philanthropy.

The Center for Evaluation Innovation (CEI) has been coordinating the Evaluation Roundtable since 2012. Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer, CEI’s director and associate director, have been leading the Roundtable together.

We see the need for some changes.

We at CEI are constantly reflecting on how best to position the Evaluation Roundtable so that it influences how the philanthropic sector thinks about and resources evaluation and learning.

In recent years we have noticed that the needs, interests, and funding philosophies of Roundtable participants have diversified considerably as the number of foundations at the table has grown. In our efforts to serve this wide array of interests, the Roundtable risks landing on “lowest common denominator” themes designed to support everyone in their role, no matter what their leaders charge them with doing or what values drive their work. This pulls us away from our overall mission to innovate and push the field forward, challenging leaders to grapple with what their role could and should be.

More broadly, we also are seeing questions about the role of evaluation in philanthropy being raised amidst a much broader questioning about the role of philanthropy writ large. Public critics and activists within philanthropy are pushing the sector to reckon with its racialized history and the ways in which it continues to reinforce racial and other inequities. This activism is taking a variety of forms, from individual institutions taking steps to examine their own practices, to larger-scale initiatives that push foundations to shift paradigms and practices (e.g., Equitable Evaluation Initiative, Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity), to cross-institution organizing and movement building (e.g., Change Philanthropy and its members).

As these efforts gain momentum, we think philanthropy is poised for a significant transformation in the way it imagines its purpose and how it participates in social change. This transformation will require more from evaluation leaders than incremental improvements in conventional learning and evaluation practices. We think the Evaluation Roundtable can and should play a role in this transformation.

Together, we have an opportunity to rethink evaluation’s purpose and positioning in the sector, and to push on how foundations think about what it means to be a strategic actor committed to equity and more effective systemic social change. 

The question we are grappling with is: How can we bring the Evaluation Roundtable’s assets, reach, and credibility to complement and accelerate other’s efforts to transform philanthropy into a powerful force for advancing racial equity and social justice in complex systems?

We have a new goal.

Our goal going forward is to use the Evaluation Roundtable to help position evaluation and learning in philanthropy so that it:

  • advances racial and other forms of equity and social justice
  • creates channels for people—particularly those who are historically and structurally excluded from decision making about public resources—to participate in and influence decisions about the interventions and systems affecting their lives
  • increases the ability of foundations, nonprofits, and other change agents to navigate and transform the complex dynamics that shape our world.

This goal requires us to change our model.

We are still in the process of figuring out precisely what this means.

We know some things will remain. We will continue conducting benchmarking research, producing teaching cases, and convening Roundtable participants. But we also know we need to move away from having one large convening where space is limited and participation is restricted to only the most senior evaluation and learning leaders.

Our next Evaluation Roundtable convenings (we are planning more than one) will be in 2021. We will announce more details later this year.

In the meantime, this year, we are conducting research with other actors in philanthropy on what is keeping foundation evaluation and learning practices stuck in ways that are helping to reinforce inequities. From this analysis, we want to co-construct an agenda with those actors and with you about what needs to change in the sector to unstick it.

This will require us to focus on more than just our traditional evaluation and learning roles and responsibilities. It will require us to work with others whose positions and approaches affect ours, including boards and how they think about accountability, and foundation leaders who define strategy development processes. Stay tuned. You’ll likely be asked to play a part in this work.

Our leadership also is changing.

Unrelated to our change in direction, we also will experience a change in the Roundtable’s leadership. While Tanya is passionate about evaluation and about her leadership of the Evaluation Roundtable, and has been instrumental in shaping its new direction and focus, she feels a need to shift toward work that is more directly focused on social justice and activism.

Tanya is leaving CEI and her Evaluation Roundtable co-director role at the end of September 2020.

All of us will miss Tanya’s role in the field and her deep wisdom, strong voice, and unrelenting belief in the transformative value of evaluation and learning for social change. But we look forward to seeing her considerable talents applied to new endeavors. She does not know precisely where she will land at this point, but she has some excellent ideas and is taking several months off at the end of the year (in Europe) to take a break while continuing to plan her next steps. Until then, we still have her through September and are excited about what we will accomplish and where the Evaluation Roundtable is headed.

In March 2020 we will launch a search for the Roundtable’s next director. We will share our position description with you as soon as it is ready.

We hope that you will share it broadly with your networks, and help us to think about and shape the Evaluation Roundtable’s next chapter. We are excited about the future and about adding a new team member to lead it.