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.