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Not evaluating your grants? It'll cost you

WATCH NOW: The Ian Potter Foundation's Squirrel Main explains what you can do to improve your evaluation

The Ian Potter Foundation is building a strong reputation for its laser-like focus on evaluation and its benefits, and leading the charge is Dr Squirrel Main, a keynote speaker at the 2019 Grants in Australia conference.

The Ian Potter Foundation is one of Australia's biggest philanthropic organisations. It distributed 193 grants worth nearly $23 million in the 2016-2017 financial year, and has given away $273 million since its inception in 1964.

The Melbourne-based organisation's grants span arts, the environment, science, medical research, education, community wellbeing, health, disability, knowledge and learning.

When conference organisers asked Dr Main - the foundation's research and evaluation manager - to speak on the topic 'False economy: The costs of not funding evaluation', she responded with her trademark enthusiasm. And her first research move? Google, of course.

Evaluation really gives you more leverage

Dr Main soon discovered that nobody else, apparently, had ever attempted to put a dollar figure on the cost of failing to evaluate a grants program, so she dug into the organisation's own extensive database to see whether it could provide an answer.

The Foundation records the amount of "leverage" that its grants funding attracts - that is, additional investments from other sources. Leverage is known as the "currency of philanthropy" for good reason.

When Dr Main looked at all the programs that hadn't been evaluated, at least not formally, she found that the median leverage value of the Foundation's grants was only 47 cents per dollar invested.

Value of evaluation - Ian Potter(Dr Main found a ten-fold difference between
poorly leveraged and highly leveraged programs.)

Median leverage value was even lower for programs that had poor outcomes, and even higher for programs with strong outcomes.

Dr Main said that looking beyond leverage value, the benefits of evaluation increased exponentially over time: good evaluations led to better future investment decisions, as well a greater ability to improve, adjust or defund programs that were not working.

Other measures also demonstrated the benefits of evaluation, Dr Main told delegates. On average, program manager ratings were better for evaluated programs, she said, as were long-term outcomes.


Squirrel MainDr Squirrel Main at the Grantmaking in Australia conference

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Dr Main's top suggestions for grantmakers

  • Actually evaluate. You really don't know which of your programs are poor. Evaluations will tell you. And if you're getting answers you already know, get a new evaluator.
  • Read the evaluations. Don't just skim the executive summaries; read the details and see whether the program is really doing what it says it is.
  • Don't skimp on the budget. Allow at least 10 per cent of the program cost for evaluation, and account for staff time for data collection, and travel costs. Don't expect fundees to do everything out-of-hours and still expect quality results.
  • Build on the evaluations. Allow time for reflection and sharing best practice.


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About the top image: The varied sitella is among the birds monitored on the Threatened Australian Bird Index in a data project to assess the conservation status of native species. Birdlife Australia won a $121,000 environment grant from the Ian Potter Foundation to build a stronger picture for evaluation. Picture: Andrew Silcocks/Birdlife Australia

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Not evaluating your grants? It'll cost you

The Ian Potter Foundation is building a strong reputation for its laser-like focus on evaluation and its benefits, and leading the charge is Dr Squirrel Main.