Collaborative Grantmaking: Rethinking How to Assess Impact

Traditionally, we think of impact as, “For X cost, the organization will serve Y number of people in Z amount of time to create A, B, C outcomes using D, E, F strategies.” While these statements provide an organized promise of future success, each element is rife with uncertainty and assumptions while the whole process is embedded in complex systems, dynamics, and interactions.

All of which combine to make impact difficult to measure and explain.

Our expectations around results are powerful. They guide our relationships, how we craft grant solicitations, applications, and reports, how we review opportunities, track progress, and ultimately how we judge and support what’s possible. These rigid structures also mean that we wait for results (even if it’s in 6-to-12-month pilot studies), or we copy and paste best practices from other communities based on the assumption that what works in one place will work in another. These strategies unfortunately use precious time and energy and miss the larger opportunity to quickly and efficiently gain and share learning with transparency and trust.

Defining and assessing impact is rarely simple but taking a collaborative grantmaking approach can help you identify the real learnings and center the stakeholder to create a solution that actually drives results.

Redefine Learning by Focusing on the Greatest Benefit

When organizations craft grant applications, they are expected to spell out specifically how their plan will work. But what if they are off? What if the need in the community shifts? What if they learn that another solution will actually be more helpful or the solution they thought made the most sense is not creating the most benefit?

With the current distance between nonprofits and foundations and the power dynamics that buttress this separation, there are few spaces and even fewer trusted relationships that make sharing this learning, these pivots, acceptable and safe. In most cases, there are rarely ways to share real-time learning. Often grantees feel the “real” learning might put funding in jeopardy, so it gets hidden within glossy and buttoned-up grant reports that make it look like everything went just to plan. Isn’t it more of a success if potential solutions can be tested and co-created with stakeholders to deliver the greatest benefit?

Redefine Success by Solution Testing

What if there was a different and better way to break free of the constraints of traditional “impact”? What if we used new skills rooted in shared learning to drive results in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the resources? What we rarely acknowledge with this expectation of perfectly planned outcomes is that every cost, timeline, population to be “served”, outcomes and strategy are all embedded with assumptions (even if they are contained in a logic model or Gantt chart).

I can share that after working for more than a decade to support a huge variety of organizations, challenges, and potential solutions (most of which made perfect logical sense), half of the solutions did not make it past a few weeks of testing. You might read this as a 50% success rate and despair, but I celebrate because these numbers mean that organizations were open to learning in just hours, days, and weeks that either their solution was incorrect or needed tweaking, saving in some instances hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or better yet, they quickly learned of alternative options that exceeded the impact they originally envisioned.

When you use new skills for solution testing, you have a space for learning that is safe, rewarded, and supported. We need to move past words and promises neatly packaged in applications and pitches—however well-meaning—and identify how stakeholders (who we all exist to support) can truly benefit.

Redefine Solution by Centering the Stakeholder

We can test the assumptions that lie hidden within every potential solution before we build and ask questions like, “What must be true for the stakeholder to derive benefit from the potential solution?” The focus on a potential solution should be stakeholder-centered and the goal is to quickly and efficiently learn if and how people might access, use, and benefit from the solution by seeing what they are willing and able to do to invest their precious time, energy, and resources.

With quick solutions tests, you can determine how you can create value from a solution that does not yet exist, and you can essentially create a first draft or a prototype to test assumptions. We can understand why something is not a viable solution and be able to communicate that to decision-makers, including funders. Conversely, we also want to know why something is really fantastic and will create stunning impact so we can increase buy-in, investment, and potentially optimize and scale that impact.

Move Past Promises to Deliver Collaborative Impact

Grant applications often look like a set of wishful promises. Can you imagine how much more powerful and potentially convincing it would be if you received a grant that said, “We recently interviewed X stakeholders to learn about their greatest needs. These are their greatest pain points. Here is our idea for how to address the key challenge. Here are all the most important unknowns and assumptions that could get in the way (which you might already be thinking about). Here is how we tested these uncertainties and here are our early results that demonstrate impact.”? I’ve heard funders say that if an application like this were submitted, it would stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, and it would be foolish not to fund.

There is a new way to create, define, and assess impact. It is within our grasp to share the capacity building, skills, and support to make this powerful learning possible. Check out our webinar, Collaborative Grantmaking Part II: Reimagine How to Define and Assess Your Impact, to learn new ways to make the impact process more equitable, efficient, and effective.