Learning and Effectiveness: The Pathway to Effective Community Partnership

Nadege Souvenir

By Nadege Souvenir, associate vice president of Community Impact

June 7, 2018

At The Saint Paul & Minnesota Community Foundations, we understand that meaningful, effective community partnerships are the cornerstone of the work that we do. Over the years, these partnerships have allowed us to forge a deep bond with the community and provided us with great insight into how successful community solutions are developed and who needs to be a part of that process.

While we recognize that as funders we have the ability to propose, and sometimes impose, solutions to community issues, we know that unless those who stand to benefit from our work also shape it, sustainable change will not take place. We believe that the community is in the best position to articulate its own priorities and provide actionable solutions to challenges. It is through authentic partnership with community that change is possible. We refer to this as our Informs. Forms. Benefits. approach.

In my role as Associate Vice President of Community Impact, I have the opportunity to witness our long-standing and developing relationships in action every day. I lead our Learning and Effectiveness initiatives - assessing the overall impact of the Foundations' work in order to build community capacity through grantmaking, program related investments and community initiatives. I also work to ensure that we create an organizational culture of learning so that we can be the best possible partner to community members and organizations that look to us for leadership and support.

At the Foundations, evaluation is not solely about tracking the results and the impact of past community investments. Evaluation is also about learning how to do a better job of partnering with the community to achieve our strategic goals of advancing equity, strengthening communities and broadening philanthropic expression. For us, evaluation is a part of the learning process. It is information gathering and research about the activities we support that inform learning and drive continuous improvement.

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    Associate Program Officer Takara Henegar answers questions from members of the nonprofit community at a recent community convening.

    A few of the ways in which we have infused our learning into our Learning and Effectiveness work:

    • East Metro Pulse Survey and Report: East Metro Pulse is a tool that the Foundations use to measure community vitality and quality of life in Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties.
    • Community Convenings: In an effort to be a better, more proactive partner, we are hosting events that allow us to share with and hear from the community.
    • Center for Effective Philanthropy Surveys: These surveys center around grantee and partner/stakeholder perspectives and give us an up-close view of how they perceive our work.
    • Grantmaking Monitoring: To inform our portfolio decisions, we have been collecting information about the developmental maturity of our grantees, as well as their connectedness to the racial/ethnic communities that they serve.

    For our community impact team, the goal is to lead with learning. We believe that if we gain insights from our experience (and that of others) and share our knowledge, we can adapt to best serve the East Metro community and beyond. Actively paying attention and taking the time to reflect allows us to keep our finger on the pulse of community need and keep pace with the changes that are rapidly occurring in the community.

    The Foundations strive to be a learning organization that integrates evaluation and learning into all of our work. I am proud of the work that the Foundations are bringing forward in the Learning and Effectiveness space, but I also know that we have to give constant, considerable thought to how we execute this work in order to ensure that we achieve better outcomes for our community.

    To that end, we are in the process of finalizing a learning framework that will better allow us to articulate and understand the impact of our work. As an organization with a commitment to equity in all forms, this framework will affirm our belief in equitable evaluation processes. We believe there is a moral imperative for the philanthropic sector to design and implement evaluations that actively contribute to equity. We know that if we don’t continue to evolve in this regard, we risk reinforcing or exacerbating the inequities in the community that we serve.

    Today’s most pressing issues require collaborative and innovative approaches and we do a good job, but there is always room for improvement. To accomplish this, we must never stop learning.

    Eric J. Jolly, Ph.D.

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