Evidence = Funding: A new blueprint for evaluation plans

With the strain on both public and private resources in the wake of the Great Recession, funders started asking: “How do I know my investments are actually making a difference?” The Obama Administration’s answer to this question is what’s called “tiered-evidence programs,” and they’ve already been applied at the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.

Tiered-evidence programs take the approach that there is a continuum of evidence, ranging from preliminary to strong, and that programs move along this continuum by conducting more and increasingly rigorous program evaluations – moving from tier to tier as they amass evidence.

The Social Innovation Fund, one of the first of these tiered evidence initiatives, is committed to investing in evidence and evaluation that help prove and improve promising models. In order to help organizations map their way forward, we have created the Social Innovation Fund Evaluation Plan Guidance – a new document that presents a comprehensive evaluation design. The evaluation is based on Social Innovation Fund definitions and expectations, but it could be applied to a variety of organizations and programs. It’s part of the Social Innovation Fund’s “Knowledge Initiative,” which shares best practices to benefit and strengthen the sector as a whole.

The Social Innovation Fund, one of the first of these tiered evidence initiatives, is committed to investing in evidence and evaluation that helps prove and improve promising models.By utilizing the Social Innovation Fund Evaluation Plan Guidance, programs will not only assess their effectiveness, but will also build the knowledge base for other initiatives addressing similar community issues across the nation.

More Evidence = More Funding

The Social Innovation Fund groups evidence levels into three categories or tiers: preliminary, moderate, and strong. For all evidence-focused federal programs, the higher you are on the continuum of evidence, the more ready you are for scale, and the more funding you can therefore receive.

This model aims to:

  • Infuse evidence in programming and grant-making decisions
  • Advance the evidence base of all funded programs
  • Increase the number of interventions on the upper end of the evidence continuum
  • Improve program models by applying data and outcomes analysis in real time

A Blueprint for Rigorous Evaluations

Although this document was developed to help the Social Innovation Fund grantees and subgrantees meet program expectations, it can serve as a blueprint for a variety of evaluation plans used by funders, nonprofits, and evaluators. It provides a common framework and shared understanding of what rigorous evaluation means, the elements and criteria against which plans will be assessed and approved, how implementation will be monitored, and how results will be reported and shared.

Cindy Eby, Director of Evaluation for Mile High United Way in Denver, shares that:

“(T)he SEP Guidance provided a very thorough framework for thinking through evaluation plans. Given the level of rigor expected for evaluations through the SIF and the expectation to move fairly quickly into implementing an evaluation, access to explicit guidance to think through the many details needed for high quality quasi-experimental and experimental designs was helpful.”

Gabriel Rhoads, Director of Evaluation and Learning at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, stated:

“We’ve ‘Clarkified’ the SEP guidance for all of our grantees! Through our past work at EMCF, we’ve realized the importance of aligning evaluation planning with program growth. It helps ensure appropriate budgeting, and also that a program is increasing the number of youth served in a way that will meet an evaluation’s sample size requirements. The Social Innovation Fund evaluation plan process supports this alignment well. In fact, EMCF has incorporated parts of the Social Innovation Fund evaluation planning template into our evaluation efforts with grantees in our non-Social Innovation Fund portfolios.”

The evaluation planning process outlined here is intense, but it’s comprehensive. It’s an exciting step forward for us, and — we hope — everyone in our field.

Michael D. Smith
Social Innovation Fund
Michael D. Smith is Director of the Social Innovation Fund, a key White House initiative and program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, created to grow effective community solutions. Michael was most recently Senior VP of Social Innovation at the Case Foundation. The mission of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering. You can follow Michael on Twitter @msmithDC.