Bright spots and case studies

Critical models for monitoring, evaluation, and learning innovation in social sector

We provide multiple examples of bright spot organizations that are already succeeding or showing promise in one or more of elements of the three characteristics of a better future. These are meant to provide inspiration and examples of how innovative practices have actually been implemented.


Re-imagining measurement toolkit

The Re-imagining measurement toolkit includes a range of innovation materials for getting to a better future for monitoring, evaluation, and learning.

This section provides examples of bright spots1 for each of the three characteristics of a better future to inspire you to make changes at your organization and with others.

Re-imagining measurement strategic learning toolkit

[brief description of this piece's place in the toolkit and the toolkit overall]

Brights spots

Re-imagining measurement and evaluation doesn’t necessarily mean inventing something entirely new. Many foundations are already experimenting with elements and practices that could be central to a more decision-centered mindset to M&E. As science fiction author William Gibson has famously explained, “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” So the first step in any innovation process is to look for what is already working.

Bright spots in the field offer critical models for innovation in monitoring, evaluation, and learning at particular organizations. These existing bright spots can serve as important inspiration and a source of ideas for social sector organizations. Figuring out how to spread them and adapt them to new contexts can play a critical role in bridging the gap between the expected and better future.

Below you can find a few examples of bright spots for each of the three characteristics of a better future. For a complete set of bright spots, please download the Bright Spots PDF. These are cards that can either be reviewed or used in group brainstorming. Specific instructions for use in a brainstorming exercise are listed on the cards. A set of bright spots for a specific characteristic can be found at the end of the related section below.

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Bright spots

Examples of bright spots for more effectively putting decision making at the center

Reducing grantee reporting burden through a blended mix of in-person and online approaches

  • The DentaQuest Foundation (DQF), a corporate funder focused on promoting oral health in the United States, lessens the reporting burden on grantees by placing significant attention on making evaluation useful for the grantee. DQF provides opportunities for grantees to shape overall evaluation strategy and approach, invites (rather than requires) grantees to participate in learning-focused M&E efforts led by its external evaluator, and encourages grantees to develop unique reporting and evaluation products (such as videos and communication collateral) that prioritize sharing their impact not only with the foundation but with their local stakeholders.

    The intention is to balance accountability and learning and make evaluation processes and products useful tools for the grantees to advance their strategies without inflicting any additional resource burdens.

Providing “embedded resources” to help organizations develop their evaluative thinking and data capabilities

  • Harvard’s Strategic Data Project, an initiative of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, partners with school districts, states, and nonprofits to bring high-quality research methods and data analysis to bear on strategic management and policy decisions. Among other efforts, the project trains and places “data fellows” in partner organizations to provide in-house data analytics support, help develop evidence-informed policy, and improve the organization’s ability to leverage strategic analytics.

Shifting the emphasis to learning and adaptation

  • The Open Society Foundations (OSF), the international philanthropic network founded by George Soros, has begun to separate conversations focused on learning from conversations about resource allocation. Every two years, it conducts a “portfolio review” of each area of work with program staff and board members to self-critique their activities and assess what has worked and what has not.

    Program allocation decisions then occur separately as part of a strategy review up to two years later that reflects not just grantee performance, but also refinements to OSF’s approach that emerged from the learning-focused portfolio review.

Integrating behavioral science and iterative user-centered design to create solutions

  • HopeLab, a nonprofit focused on driving healthy behaviors and bolstering resilience for children and young adults, makes connections between social processes, human behavior, neuroscience, and the human genome to create effective digital solutions. The organization identifies promising behaviors that support health and well-being, researches the psychology that motivates or inhibits those behaviors, tests potential solutions in rapid feedback cycles using user-centered design principles, and creates technology that engages psychology drivers to change behavior.

    For example, HopeLab developed the “Mood Meter” app in collaboration with Marc Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence to develop emotional awareness by helping users plot their feelings and providing tools and strategies to help users shift their mood to a more positive state.

Explore the complete list of bright spots for more effectively putting decision making at the center.


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In a better future:
  1. Information for on-the-ground decision making is prioritized
  2. Learning is embedded and continuous
  3. There is greater investment in monitoring, evaluation, and learning capacity
  4. The data and methods needed to inform decisions are available

Examples of bright spots for better empowering constituents and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion

Integrating equity as a key dimension of community well-being

  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is integrating equity goals into its efforts to promote a national “culture of health” in the United States, focusing a portion of its work specifically on creating healthier, more equitable communities. To assess community health, the foundation is using measures that are broader than traditional health measures and include equity indicators, such as housing affordability and residential segregation.

    The foundation is tracking these measures across 30 communities, chosen to reflect geographic and demographic diversity, to better understand how communities make progress or encounter barriers in improving members’ health and well-being.

Developing simplified tools to determine if a program is meeting its equity goals

  • The EquityTool, a free app developed by a collaboration of nonprofits and social sector actors, enables programs to quickly and easily assess whether they are serving the poor in the low- and middle-income countries in which they operate. Metrics for Management maintains and supports the EquityTool, which provides a brief and simple country-specific questionnaires (for 30+ countries) to assess the relative wealth of respondents by asking questions such as, “What kind of fuel does your household mainly use for cooking?”

    The EquityTool can be run offline on any mobile or tablet device and offers integration with a variety of data collection platforms. When data is uploaded, the EquityTool automatically calculates the wealth distribution of the population served by the program.

Using data to build trust and tailor resource allocation

  • Family Independence Initiative (FII), a nonprofit focused on economic mobility for low-income communities, leverages the power of information to accelerate the initiative families take to improve their lives. FII Families journal about their lives via an online platform. FII uses this data to tailor its resources to meet the priorities of families, as defined by the families themselves.

    FII shares the data they collect with the families, encouraging them to be transparent about their activities and empowering them to use their personal data to guide and improve their own choices.

Giving constituents a voice in guiding the programming for their families

  • The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) is a nonprofit collaborative of organizations that exists to close the achievement gap and end multi-generational poverty in north Minneapolis. NAZ empowers parents to voice their perspective to help guide programming that supports a culture of achievement in the community. To strengthen diversity and improve dialogue with parents, NAZ has created a parental advisory board to advise leadership, and has also assigned two seats on its board of directors to parents.

    This structure facilitates a more inclusive dialogue, which allows parental priorities, concerns, and definitions of success to be conveyed directly to leadership throughout the organization, making strategic decisions for the collaborative.

Explore the complete list of collected bright spots for better empowering constituents and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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In a better future:
  1. Equity is consistently considered in and supported by monitoring, evaluation, and learning efforts
  2. Constituent feedback is an essential practice
  3. Constituents are empowered to make their own choices
  4. Data rights are secured

Examples of bright spots for more productively learning at scale

Enabling field-wide learning by sharing detailed data with researchers

  • Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit that provides counseling services to teens via text message, shares detailed, anonymized data with approved researchers. Over 32 million text messages have been exchanged via Crisis Text Line since its launch, making it the United State’s largest open set of crisis data.

    The volume of messages and variety of content enables researchers to investigate trends and explore services and policies that can better support teens facing personal crises. One group of researchers, for example, is investigating how LGBTQ youth in various zip codes talk about their experiences and then is comparing those experiences to local school and government policies.

Using a shared measurement system to see the progress of both the field and individual organizations

  • Grounded Solution’s HomeKeeper program standardizes the way affordable housing programs across their sector track data, measure outcomes, and implement effective practices. Over 70 member organizations pay an annual fee to use HomeKeeper, a cloud-based app built on the SalesForce platform. Built by and for practitioners, HomeKeeper helps programs manage their day to day program activities, while tracking a core set of fields to produce a common social impact report.

    HomeKeeper organizations seamlessly share social impact data with the HomeKeeper National Data Hub where information is aggregated and shared across the sector. HomeKeeper’s shared measurement system creates an understanding of how the field as a whole is meeting the needs of underserved buyers, but also allows members to benchmark their data to their peers.

Connecting local place-based initiatives to inform national field building

  • National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) combines local expertise with the power of a national peer-learning network to strengthen communities. NNIP is made up of independent data intermediaries in 30 cities that have a shared mission to help community stakeholders use neighborhood-level data for better decision making, with a focus on assisting organizations and residents in underserved communities. NNIP is supported and coordinated by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization.

    One of Urban Institute’s roles is to lead cross-site initiatives across local partners, enabling them to share their successes and challenges, and then synthesizes lessons from their work to inform other localities, as well as national policy. The partnership recently launched “Turning the Corner,” for example, a pilot project in Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and other cities to develop protocols and methodologies for monitoring neighborhood revitalization that can then be adapted by other cities and used to advance the field.

Explore the complete list of collected bright spots for more productively learning at scale.

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In a better future:
  1. Data, learning, and knowledge are shared openly and widely
  2. Knowledge gaps and learning agendas are collaboratively undertaken
  3. Data is integrated at scale needed to assess social impact
  4. Evaluation synthesis, replication, and meta-evaluation are supported


1Language about bright spots has been confirmed from bright spot organizations in personal communications.

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