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Philanthropic collaboratives are finding ways to more effectively measure impact

A Black woman speaking to three people around a table.

In the United States, philanthropic collaboratives—entities that either pool or channel resources from multiple donors to nonprofits—collectively directed between $2 billion and $3 billion to a variety of grantees in 2021, and our research indicates that figure has grown since then. The practices of this relatively new form of philanthropy are still evolving. In a 2022 survey, nearly 70% of respondents cited building measurement, evaluation, and learning capabilities as a critical area in which they would like to invest.  

Measuring and learning at the intersection of donors, grantees, and systems 

Let’s look at how philanthropic collaboratives can equitably and effectively measure, evaluate, and learn in the pursuit of greater impact. Like other types of grantmakers, collaboratives seek to measure effectiveness and learn from feedback. They are keenly aware that they need to avoid harmful philanthropic measurement practices that overburden grantees, eat up grantee resources, focus on compliance rather than learning, or privilege the concerns of donors over those of grantees. 

While grantmaking is often core to a collaborative’s strategy, collaboratives also operate in a unique context: They serve as intermediaries between philanthropy and nonprofits. That means they both receive grants from funders—and thus must demonstrate their unique value proposition—and seek impact through grantmaking and other supports for nonprofits and the field. As such, effective approaches to measurement and learning reflect a multiplicity of stakeholders. In our study How Philanthropic Collaboratives Measure, Evaluate, and Learn, we examined three levels of impact: grantees, systems or fields, and donors.  

Here we’ll focus on equitably measuring across a portfolio of grantees. To measure a collaborative’s own progress toward its impact goals, it’s important to look beyond individual grantee results or a handful of compelling stories from the highest-performing grantees and assess the portfolio as a whole.  

Measuring effectiveness equitably across grantee portfolios 

A number of promising practices have emerged for how funder collaboratives can equitably measure impact across their full grantee portfolio:  

Tracking grantee characteristics across the portfolio. A collaborative may seek a particular mix of grantees designed to maximize the impact it seeks. For example, it may prioritize organizations with leaders who have lived experience in the communities they work with, organizations of a certain size, or those with the potential to sustain long-term change. Another collaborative may monitor the mission-aligned metrics, financial stability, implementation of evidence-based practices, and diversity, equity, and inclusion policies of grantees to assess whether it is supporting the organizations most likely to realize the impact it seeks.  

Tracking feedback across the portfolio to improve grantee support. Grantee feedback can help a collaborative improve its value proposition. For example, the African Visionary Fund asks grantees about its own sourcing and diligence process—like the number of documents it requests and the way it describes funding criteria. Based on that feedback, the fund works to reduce the burden on potential grantees and identify barriers that might discourage them from applying. 

Tracking common outcome metrics across grantees. Some collaboratives fund grantees to work toward a clearly defined, shared goal—and use shared outcome metrics across grantees. For example, grantees of the Freedom Fund, a collaborative that seeks to prevent and end modern slavery, agree to collect a few common data points, such as the numbers of people liberated from slavery and children back in school. Other collaboratives may pursue broader goals that don’t lend themselves to common strategies and metrics, such as reducing intergenerational poverty. Blue Meridian Partners works with each grantee to set individual milestones and metrics instead—and then analyzes how the collaborative is helping grantees achieve those milestones.  

Modeling equitable grantee- and constituent-centered practices. Acknowledging that philanthropic requests for information are often extractive, some collaboratives are working to measure and learn in ways that don’t overburden grantees, are designed to center the knowledge and experience of their grantee communities, and address funder-grantee power dynamics. They’re reducing reporting requirements, using open-ended questions rather than a highly structured report template, and engaging in discovery and learning with the people and the organizations that provide the data.  

Remember, though, that collaboratives also work across stakeholders. So as philanthropic collaboratives work to measure across a portfolio of grantees, they must also weave their practices around considering their impact on donors—and frequently on the systems or fields they are trying to influence. Because of that complexity, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how they measure and learn, but thoughtful, equity-centered measurement tools and frameworks can help make the sector more efficient, effective, and equitable. 

Photo credit: JohnnyGreig via Getty Images


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