BTCF Blog | Contributing to Impact through Strategic Learning

BTCF Blog

Contributing to Impact through Strategic Learning

By Tim Wilmot / July 11, 2019 / Strategy, Evaluation & Learning
Contributing to Impact through Strategic Learning

In recent years, BTCF has made significant efforts to build its capacities to better know and grow the impact of its grants, programs and strategic priorities. I am fortunate to have taken on the newly created position of director of strategy, evaluation and learning last August as part of this momentum. I’m inspired by the foundation’s vision, mission and values and the collective readiness among the board, staff, donors, volunteers and partners to engage more deeply in strategic learning to improve our communities.

In this role, I work closely with these stakeholders to develop and refine program strategies, evaluate outcomes and impact, and promote learning and knowledge sharing about the foundation’s priorities and issues facing the region. In this post, I’d like to share how we have been building out BTCF’s strategy, evaluation and learning functions in ways that are intended to contribute impact, as shown in the cyclical diagram below.

Strategy

We forged our strategies in A Plan for the Future and laid out priorities where we believe philanthropy in the Berkshire Taconic region can make a measurable difference, where BTCF can provide leadership and where opportunities exist to collaborate with our donors, volunteers and other partners for lasting impact. Based on this plan, we have created specific theories-of-change and logic models (more about those in my next blog post) that spell out the causal pathways for getting from goals to results, as well as the roles that the foundation will play (e.g., grantmaking, convening, research and knowledge sharing, etc.). To know if we are achieving desired results, we have also developed measurement plans with agreed-upon metrics.

As depicted in the right side of the cycle diagram, together these elements have provided us with strategic direction for implementing our programs and philanthropic services and set up the opportunity to ask key evaluation questions about what we want to know, especially about the impact of this work.

Evaluation

At BTCF, we have put in place key data collection, analysis and reporting methods (e.g., surveys, grant reports, third-party evaluations, internal dashboard) to better understand the value of our investments and the work happening on the ground with our partners. All of these methods have been streamlined to answer key strategic questions while not creating unnecessary burdens on partners focused on doing good work with beneficiaries.

For me, evaluating mostly involves engaging, listening to and sensemaking along with the people implementing and being affected by the projects we support—but I have to admit that I do enjoy crunching numbers in data tables as well!

Good evaluation practices ensure that BTCF and our partners have the information we all need to understand, improve and communicate progress in executing on strategy. Indeed, evaluation drives important findings and knowledge, from which we learn lessons as we go (as depicted at the bottom of the cycle).

Learning

Using evaluation results and knowledge produced, the function I lead also promotes learning among key stakeholders about issues and trends facing the region and effective programmatic, donor engagement and community leadership strategies.

This takes many different forms, from “learning memos” and “lunch and learns” for staff, to reports for and conversations with our board, to reflecting on evaluation results with area fund committees, to assimilating grant reports and facilitating convenings with implementers. It always requires humility in knowing that our efforts can only contribute to broader change by many actors—rather than be simply attributed to the foundation’s role—and that some of the richest learning can happen from when things don’t work out as planned. This kind of rigorous evaluation and deep learning informs course corrections and the refresh of strategies (the left side of the above cycle), which brings us back full-circle.

In sum, strategy work helps us to make decisions about how best to address our priorities with the foundation’s resources and evaluation produces findings and knowledge—which, when coupled with systematic review, reflection and intellectual dialogue, drive learning and improvement.

An Illustration through Community Engagement

This fall, you will learn more about how BTCF is creating opportunities for learning among nonprofits and other stakeholders in the areas of economic opportunity and educational attainment that are leading to the development of exciting new strategies. In this post, I want to focus on BTCF’s work on the strategic priority of community engagement.

Beliefs and Barriers

A guiding belief behind this work is that community engagement through the arts in Berkshire County will increase if BTCF and partners: 1) identify and address underlying issues that create barriers to participation, especially among lower-income residents, communities of color, youth and immigrants; 2) build the capacity of organizations to effectively engage residents and experiment with new approaches to find solutions; and, 3) foster greater connectivity among organizations for the purpose of partnership development, resource sharing and learning. Thus, through our Arts Build Community Initiative, we have been using philanthropic vehicles such as grantmaking, capacity building, convening, network building and donor engagement to increase community engagement through arts and the creative process for under-represented residents.

Although it is early in the work, our monitoring and evaluation efforts with grantees and program participants are yielding fresh insights into new types programs and strategies, the numbers of diverse people participating in them, and their accomplishments. While some tough barriers such as transportation and cost are being addressed with increased financial resources, partnerships and creative logistics, we are finding that other barriers such as social discomfort and fear of rejection based on race and social class are much more insidious and challenging to address.

Yet grantees are leaning into the conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and engaging their fellow staff and board members, clients and attendees, and other community partners. Many are engaging deeply with DEI experts to foster organizational culture and practices that are more welcoming and inclusive. Dozens are pioneering bold new ways of including diverse residents in decision-making processes about how they can experience art and culture, such as through community advisory boards, artist-led events, programs that invite and involve the families of youth, neighborhood coalitions that produce public art, and other innovations.

Lessons Learned

This work is formative, but some lessons that have come out of evaluation have shaped how we are proposing the next three years of this work supported by the Barr Foundation.

For example, the resident community researchers who helped build our understanding of the barriers and critically guided our grantmaking decisions have proven to us that not only are our program decisions made better through their participation, but there is also great potential in developing additional resident leaders and artists in order to engage wider circles of diverse and under-served residents countywide. We are thus seeking to formalize a new strategy and program component around resident involvement in this second phase of ABC work.

At the same time, while we are privileged that BTCF’s presence in this sector is desired and welcomed by arts organizations and other stakeholders, we realize that to maintain this receptivity we must continue to develop our own cultural competence and credibility as a community partner. As a result, we are planning future DEI training opportunities for our staff.

Contributing to Impact

As we cycle around these three components of strategic learning in each of BTCF’s strategic priorities, our hope is that collectively we become smarter about how change really happens, and that sharing “what works” and “what doesn’t” fuels continuous improvement in our work while deepening and broadening our impact in the communities we serve.

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