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Jun 19, 2024

Key Lessons from Our 2023 Learning Book

In conventional philanthropy, the foundation sets the metrics of success and requires 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While the learning book serves primarily as a learning tool and historical document for our team, we release it publicly to embody our values of transparency and accountability.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 2023 Evaluation & Learning Data Book!

Our learning book is organized around the key outcomes in our community-designed theory of change. Below are 10 key lessons and takeaways from our 2023 edition:

  • Confluence Center is more than an events space; it’s a catalyst for progress on our issue areas and broader goals. We opened this ‘Home for Nonprofit Events’ on the ground floor of our headquarters in 2023, and it has been a resounding success. Many local nonprofits don’t have space to support a productive meeting. They appreciate the accessibility and user-friendliness of Confluence Center, which result in higher attendance and increased efficiency. Read more about the venue’s inaugural year here.
  • Investing in people power is essential. Our long-term, flexible funding supports staff positions, which help organizations collaborate with partners, develop infrastructure, communicate strategically, and plan for succession, contributing to a more resilient nonprofit sector.
  • Funding systems change requires long-term commitment, patience, and flexibility. After 5 years of funding and relationship building, we’re beginning to see shifts in organizational capacity, the policy sphere, and more – shifts that may not have occurred if we had stopped or changed our funding after a year or two. When investing in policy work and systems change, funders may not see immediate results, but with patience and persistence, they can begin to see significant, big-picture changes.
  • Direct service is in the continuum of systems change. In rural communities, nonprofits must first build programs and services to gain supporters and engagement as a pathway to systems change efforts. For nonprofits to move along the continuum toward systems change, foundations must provide them with long-term funding and capacity-building opportunities to develop and sustain strong leaders who can guide their organization into the next phase of the work.
  • Supporting collaboration between organizations and across sectors is key to being a successful funding partner. When organizations working on similar issues collaborate, amazing things happen. We are constantly learning and iterating on how to strengthen our role as a networker and convener so that we can support organizations as they connect, decide on a shared ‘North Star,’ and share power with each other and their constituents.
  • To change public narratives, partners need tools to craft powerful messages and amplify stories. Last year, we hosted ‘Action Lab: Messaging for Impact,’ a convening where attendees gathered with peers to learn about narrative change and evaluate their messaging. Participants appreciated this opportunity, as nonprofit leaders rarely get the chance to pause and reflect on the bigger picture. Funders can provide this permission, along with the necessary guidance, space, and structure.
  • Organizations are increasingly engaging lived experts in policy work and seeing positive results. This lesson is central to our new strategic framework, which emphasizes involving families in addressing our state’s most pressing health challenges. We are committed to investing in efforts that engage underrepresented voices, uplift their experiences and support their leadership. A key question we often receive, and are actively exploring, is how to fairly compensate lived experts for their contributions while minimizing paperwork and tax implications.
  • Funding journalism and strategic communications contributes to policy change! We saw innovative work in the policy sphere by health reporters and advocacy coalitions using their voices to move the needle on issues, from housing to childcare. This was even more impactful when organizations joined forces and coordinated their messaging.
  • Funders can supercharge their contributions by helping partners leverage additional funding. Through tailored technical assistance and grant-writing support, several partners were able to secure federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and other funds, which they deployed in innovative ways to support their communities.
  • Trust-Based Philanthropy is working for our partners. We hear this again and again, through surveys and in 2022, through a Grantee Perception Report. Grantees appreciate Headwaters’ easy application process, conversation-based reporting, beyond-the-check support, and their collaborative relationship with our team. Learn more about this approach via the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project.

Read the data and stories behind these lessons in our 2023 Evaluation & Learning Data Book.

Interested in discussing our learning work? Reach out to Steph Schilling at [email protected].