Abstract: How Foundations Envision "Impact" and the Effects on Human Service Organizations: A Qualitative Study (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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How Foundations Envision "Impact" and the Effects on Human Service Organizations: A Qualitative Study

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Emily Claypool, A.M., Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Jennifer Mosley, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Nicole Marwell, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago
Cameron Day, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, IL
Background and Purpose: Strategic philanthropy is a movement among elite foundations that supports funding strategies intended to maximize return on investment through pursuit of evidence-based practices and rigorous outcome assessment. This movement has influenced the discourse among foundation leaders, but empirical research is sparse as to how shifts in funding priorities and practices have affected human service organizations (HSOs) and their capacity to uphold social work values. If foundations move strongly to funding only HSOs able to demonstrate impact through rigorous quantitative method, this could disadvantage smaller, community-based, or culturally-targeted organizations. It may also change the way foundations relate to HSOs by reducing longer term and more generalized support. To explore how field-leading foundations have adopted principles and practices of strategic philanthropy and how that has affected their relationship with grantees, we address three research questions: 1) How do foundations conceptualize impact? 2) How do foundations operationalize evidence in support of that vision? 3) How do those conceptualizations align with their ideal funder-grantee relationship?

Methods: We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with foundation program officers representing foundations with 1) significant assets and funding capacity, and 2) a strong funding presence in Chicago human services (limited geography as grant-making trends vary by region). We conducted interviews with 14 foundations out of an eligible population of 16. Transcripts were recorded, transcribed, and independently coded using grounded theory principles including constant comparative analysis. Memos and consensus discussions were used to identify sub-themes by stage: open coding, focused and axial coding, and selective, advanced and theoretical coding.

Results: We find foundations have diverse conceptualizations of impact and evidence and fall into three major groups. The first group associated impact as demonstrable through gold-standard evidence such as RCTs. These foundations understood organizations as primarily administrative hosts for the testing and creation of evidence-based programs. The second group conceptualized impact more broadly, including improving organizational capacity. Such foundations often understood the organization as a partner in evaluation efforts, emphasizing collaboration and long-term relationships. A third group revealed ambivalence in how they carried out impact and evaluation work, such as engaging in RCTs while also voicing concerns about the limitations of such practices, and simultaneously calling for more “big picture” change. These efforts were often situated in opposition to the types of impact assessed by RCTs.

Conclusions and Implications: HSOs are asked to be responsive to their constituents as they pursue missions tied to social work values and practices. This study suggests that major foundations have differing perspectives on organizations’ role in evaluation-- sometimes conceptualizing organizations as partners in a shared mission and other times merely as vessels for scalable programmatic innovations. When viewed as a partner, organizations and their communities directly benefit through capacity building efforts or technical assistance. When understood as a vessel for innovation, organizations may lack voice in evaluation efforts and expend resources for minimal consumer gain. Generally, we suggest that how foundations frame “impact” can undermine, restrict, or foster organizations capacity to execute their stated missions and fully meet community needs.