Getting in Alignment: An Update on Our Evaluation Framework Journey

Getting in Alignment: An Update on Our Evaluation Framework Journey

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In her second blog of this series, Gillian Knight, our Program Associate, shares an update on where Healthy Communities Foundation is on its journey towards implementing an evaluation framework that is rooted in equity and is informed by community.

Listen to or read their conversation below.

“Alignment” is the intention that I have set both personally and professionally for 2021. The term “alignment” is the process by which someone or something gets arranged in a straight line or a position of agreement or alliance. It is both a process to get into and a way to ensure our actions are accountable to the things we value. It is also a perfect word for where Healthy Communities Foundation currently is on our journey towards implementing an evaluation framework grounded in equity.

Here is an update on what we have accomplished at the Foundation since we last checked in.

Alignment and our evaluation approach

In 2018, the Healthy Communities Foundation board, staff, and trusted leaders embarked on a journey that produced a strategic plan and outlined the core values we would strive towards and abide by in all the facets of our work. This process allowed us to do some essential “mirror work” and answer the questions of who we are, what we value, and how we want to see change take shape in our region.

This roadmap, our new evaluation framework, will allow us to show and measure how we are staying accountable to advancing our mission, vision, and values.

As it became clearer about the “who we were” as a foundation, our board, staff, and partners needed to do the “window work” of envisioning the world we hoped to see outside our collective window. We also saw the need to chart the path toward that direction and establish a roadmap to not lose our way. This roadmap, our new evaluation framework, will allow us to show and measure how we are staying accountable to advancing our mission, vision, and values.

This year, the Healthy Communities Foundation team developed a Theory of Change (ToC)–a trendy word with many meanings. In short, the spirit of our task was to create a roadmap toward our vision of building healthier communities as outlined in the strategic plan and informed by our core values. The ToC itself identified strategies and intended outcomes to measure how well our Foundation’s actions align with the values and outcomes we hope to see. We then underwent a process of getting collective clarity between us and community partners to identify the root causes of the region’s health inequities and generate proposed solutions that we can take as grantmakers.

While the Healthy Communities Foundation team has in-depth knowledge about the region we fund, we wanted to ensure community wisdom shaped our ToC. As a community-informed Foundation that moves with a trust-based philanthropic approach, we needed to have our region’s leaders shape our evaluation framework and ensure the proposed solutions and our defined actions would create the changes we hoped to see.

What do we want to learn

In my last piece about our evaluation framework, I shared a bit of my experience with “traditional” program evaluation and how harmful it had been to organizations I was a part of. Healthy Communities Foundation is not interested in replicating that type of approach. As a foundation, we are looking to deepen our relationships with community partners and learn with them about:

What is working in their approach towards achieving health equity

What their pain points are and have been in that work

And, most importantly, how we can be good stewards of these lessons.

As a community-informed Foundation that moves with a trust-based philanthropic approach, we needed to have our region’s leaders shape our evaluation framework and ensure the proposed solutions and our defined actions would create the changes we hoped to see.

These questions are at the forefront of our minds as we think about measurement, the development stage we currently find ourselves in our evaluation framework. How do we align our goals with outcomes that we can measure?

We want to ensure that these indicators can speak meaningfully to our goals outlined in the ToC and are helpful and easy for partners to collect and share with our staff. Long-term, we hope these indicators can amplify innovative approaches to achieving health equity, adjust our approach if we are the source of our partners’ pain points, and aggregate these stories to share what we have learned with the broader community.

Long-term, we hope these indicators can amplify innovative approaches to achieving health equity, adjust our approach if we are the source of our partners’ pain points, and aggregate these stories to share what we have learned with the broader community.

Wait – what do “indicators” mean?

Let us examine the age-old question: “What can I do to be healthier?” as a good example to explain this.

There are various steps that an individual can take towards answering that question and several measurable outcomes that would show progression toward becoming healthier over time.

If the goal is to try something new that could improve your health, and the action is to start a couch-to-5K-program, it might not make sense to measure a runner’s shoe size as they progress through the program. More meaningful outcome measures could be bone density, muscle strength, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, resting heart rate–the list of indicators can quickly become overwhelming. The idea is to pick a few indicators that speak meaningfully to your goal, are easy to measure, and are minimally invasive.

Often in program evaluation, measuring outcomes is more invasive or expensive than the intervention.

In our couch-to-5K example, if you selected blood iron levels or cholesterol as your measures, you would need to purchase potentially expensive equipment for home use or take time to schedule blood draws at the doctor’s office. These indicators would create a huge burden of visiting the doctor daily or weekly on someone who simply wants to run a 5K.

Keeping our partners’ needs and capacity in mind

For foundations, the intervention is the act of giving a grant to an organization to fulfill its mission. However, some of these grants can come with excessive reporting requirements that create certain dynamics:

It can privilege organizations that have someone to complete these reporting requirements;

It can be distracting to collect information with little meaning to the organization’s mission or values and becomes another task for overtasked organizations.

That is why community input is critical for this process and why we hosted another community partner focus group just this month. We wanted to confirm that our roadmap was heading in the right direction and receive feedback to reinforce and redirect our strategies and intended outcomes to better align with their efforts and work. We also wanted to ensure we did not select indicators that would be overly invasive or meaningless to their work.

If “resting heart rate” is your indicator of choice in the couch-to-5K example, all you need is 15 minutes, a stopwatch, and no fancy equipment. Plus, it is an indicator that can measure the effectiveness of different health actions beyond just your new health program towards change in overall physical health. But it is a pretty good choice.

Healthy Communities Foundation is finalizing our versions of “resting heart rate” to align with and chart progress on our ToC. These measures will speak to our goals and values as defined in our strategic plan and confirmed by our grantee partners, regional health leaders, and evaluation experts. 

Ensuring alignment between our grantmaking and evaluation approach is an ongoing, iterative process. Yet, we are excited to continue sharing with the broader community how we attune our talk with our walk in this work. Stay tuned.

About the Author

Gillian Knight, Program Associate

gknight@hcfdn.org

Gillian Knight is a Program Associate at Healthy Communities Foundation. In her role, Gillian is helping establish an evaluation framework with a focus on advancing progress toward equity. After obtaining her Bachelor of Arts in Politics and Psychology from Lake Forest College, she spent a decade working with Chicago’s young people in food sovereignty, housing, and health. She received a Master’s degree in Social Work and a Master’s degree in Public Health from University of Illinois at Chicago.

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