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Analysis

Outlooks for expected and better futures

What is the trajectory for monitoring, evaluation, and learning in the social sector?

As we talked with field leaders and experts across multiple disciplines, two very different outlooks became apparent for monitoring, evaluation, and learning: There was a clear expected future—the default view of what most people anticipate if they simply project forward current trends and behaviors, without any interventions. But people also saw a more promising, better future that they hope the field can realize, which will require organizations to change current behavior and make targeted interventions in the larger system.

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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 information about expected and better futures as a spur to avoid continuing to act as we have been, and to work to create the future we hope for.

Re-imagining measurement strategic learning toolkit

Outlooks for expected and better futures

As we’ve spoken with participants in the field, it’s become clear that there is a real divergence between the future people expect and the future people hope for. The “expected future” people see is often an expansion and deepening of what we already see emerging today. Data are becoming more accessible than ever, yet figuring out how to effectively integrate information into decision-making remains a challenge for foundations and nonprofits.

There’s been a flowering of new data methods, tools, and analytics, but nonprofits struggle with the complex landscape and insufficient resources. And despite a growing movement to incorporate “constituent voice” into evaluation activities, monitoring, evaluation, and learning too often continue to be more for foundations than for the benefit of grantees and the communities intended to gain from their programs.

The hoped-for future looks quite different. It’s one where continuous learning becomes a core management tool; where foundations “stop giving grants and start funding experiments;” where foundations and grantees share data, learning, and knowledge openly and widely; and where constituent feedback about what is needed and what success looks like is central to strategy development and review.

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Expected and better futures

An expected future

Across multiple convenings and conversations, we heard consistent themes about an expected future for monitoring, evaluation, and learning in the social sector. There was widespread concern that key barriers to putting decision making at the center, empowering constituents and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, and learning at scale would remain unresolved. Specific concerns include:

More effectively putting decision making at the center
  1. Grantees have a high reporting burden
  2. “Learning organization” remains elusive
  3. There is limited capacity
  4. There is a lack of sufficient and high-quality data
Better empowering constituents and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion
  1. Diversity, equity, and inclusion progress is incremental
  2. Constituent voice is seen as optional
  3. Funder priorities, not constituent priorities, retain primacy
  4. There are struggles to address data ethics 
More productively learning at scale
  1. There is insufficient transparency and sharing
  2. There is limited coordination of learning and evidence creation
  3. There are constrained advances in developing shared standards and systems
  4. There is difficulty leveraging big data for tangible use

While many experts believe that an expected future will involve incremental progress, the most prominent sentiment we heard around an expected future was one of doubt that we would make substantial advances towards embracing the three characteristics of a better future.

Despite common aspirations in these areas, it was clear that obstacles to transformative progress remain. Specifically, the need to invest in the capacity of grantees, prioritize constituent needs, and create incentives to embrace sharing and experimentation were identified as high priority obstacles that need to be overcome.

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A better future

In a better future, people imagined that the three characteristics of a better future would become defining pillars of monitoring, evaluation, and learning in the social sector, and felt the field would embrace key elements of each characteristic.

More effectively putting decision making at the center
  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
Better empowering constituents and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion
  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
More productively learning at scale
  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
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To learn more about a better future for monitoring, evaluation, and learning, explore each of the three characteristics of a better future section of the toolkit.

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