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Jun 9, 2023

Key Lessons from Our 2022 Learning Book

In traditional philanthropy, the foundation sets the metrics of success and requires the grantees to demonstrate that their work is meeting them. Headwaters Foundation takes a different approach to evaluation. We created a process that centers learning together, positioning grantees and the foundation as true partners in the work to improve health in Western Montana. Our team also takes on the role of collecting and analyzing stories and data to reduce the burden of reporting on our grantees.

As part of our commitment to learning, each year, our team compiles an Evaluation & Learning Data Book. Comprised of oral and written reporting data, internal goal-tracking metrics and stories of lessons learned, this tool helps us determine what is working, what isn’t, and how we can adapt to better serve our grantees and communities. Our learning book also helps us track the big-picture impact of our work and funded projects and pinpoints questions to guide future learning.

While the learning book serves primarily as a learning tool and historical document for our team, we release it publicly to embody our values of transparency and accountability. We hope to give our grantees an opportunity to see themselves in the broader ecosystem of our funded projects and provide an example resource for other funders interested in alternative ways of doing philanthropy — specifically learning and evaluation.

Check out our 2022 Evaluation & Learning Data Book!

Our learning book is organized around the key outcomes outlined in our community-designed theory of change. Below are some key takeaways we’ve distilled from our 2022 edition.

  • Organizational capacity, staffing issues and burnout are major barriers for nonprofits in achieving their mission. We continuously hear about immense challenges hiring in the nonprofit sector, due to low wages and the difficulty of the work. Inflation (of 8% in 2022) made it even harder for organizations to offer competitive salaries and benefits. We must consider the reduced spending power of grant dollars, and how we can help address burnout and support the resiliency of nonprofit staff.
  • When it comes to technical assistance, one-size-fits all does not fit all. Some grantee partners may want training for their team. Others will find opportunities to contract out tasks or sign up for shared backend services (like HR, bookkeeping) to be more beneficial. Every nonprofit will be able to engage differently in programming based on where they are in their work, so individualized, one-on-one vs. one-size-fits-all support is invaluable. Going forward, we will work to ensure that we consider the unique needs of organizations and their capacity to participate when designing and offering capacity building programs.
  • Cross-sector and cross-community collaboration is valuable for organizations that want to connect the dots about larger systems-change work and shared impact. There is a need for mechanisms for organizations to connect across sectors and communities. It is critical for foundations to support coordinating roles that ensure intentional collaboration amongst organizations. Additionally, funders can support this work through the role of convener, creating new spaces for organizations to gather. For Headwaters, this has looked like opening a nonprofit events space and facilitating convenings for organizations working on shared issues.
  • Foundations can play a unique and powerful role in helping their grantees leverage additional funds for their work. We have and will continue to connect grantee partners to other funders, support grant writing both directly and through funded technical assistance and collaborate with other private funders to align resources to make a bigger impact.
  • Changing public narratives about health is important for long-term change, but first, we need to help build the communications capacity of nonprofits and newsrooms. Last year, we funded journalism fellowships to help increase bandwidth for local news coverage and create a pipeline for young media professionals. We also funded nonprofit communications projects and/or technical assistance support.
  • Investing in organizations that are bringing lived experts to the table to impact policy is valuable! For us, this has looked like funding local organizing around housing, statewide organizing alongside low-income women and families and Native Americans, and parent organizing for improved early childhood systems. It has been and will be important to ensure that those most impacted by barriers to wellbeing are continuously engaged in the decision-making process and cultivated as leaders.
  • Trust-Based Philanthropy works for grantees. Grantee feedback confirmed that our trust-based approach is appreciated by our partners. Grantees value streamlined application and reporting processes, support beyond-the-check, and greater trust and authenticity in relationships with Foundation staff. Learn more about Trust-Based Philanthropy here.

Read the stories behind these lessons in our 2022 Evaluation & Learning Data Book.

Interested in discussing our learning framework? Reach out!