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Balancing trust, evidence, and equity: how should funders evaluate and learn?

By Claire Gordon 26 January 2024 4 minute read

In this blog, Claire Gordon, Senior Consultant at NPC, provides an update on our work to create an open access framework and toolkit for funders to monitor, evaluate, and learn from their grants. Building on a recent roundtable we hosted in partnership with Disrupt Foundation, this blog sets out our thinking to date and our plans for the coming months.  

Why do we think this is needed? 

In recent years, trust-based approaches to grant-making have gained traction. Funders are looking to support organisations in more flexible and less onerous ways, as picked up in a recent report by The Economist on the rise of ‘no strings attached’ giving. However, this raises questions for evaluation and learning practices. 

NPC has long advocated for approaches which characterise trust-based philanthropy, from long-term unrestricted grants, to adopting a more relational approach to grant-making. We’ve also spent many years arguing for the importance of evidence to the sector, as a means to learn, evolve, and be accountable to the communities that we serve. And more recently, we’ve highlighted the importance of embedding equity into grant-making and evaluation practices.   

We think these three elements—trust, evidence and equity—are all vital to the ways in which funders approach their grant-making, evaluate their work, and learn how they can do better. However, in the bid to be as light touch as possible, there’s a risk that evidence gets swept away, with some funders stripping back reporting requirements to the bare minimum. An overreliance on trust risks placing a greater emphasis on personal relationships influencing grant-making decisions—and research into affinity bias highlights how relationships are most easily formed among people with similar outlooks and backgrounds. Building an evidence base can ensure that funders are held accountable for delivering more equitable outcomes, for instance through adopting the DEI data standard. 

We also know that not all funders are on the same path, some who distribute funding from public sources have much higher accountability requirements, others need to fundraise themselves and demonstrate their impact to donors, while some are seeking to build the evidence base as part of the value they bring to the sector. What does a proportionate approach look like in these instances?  

As more funders move towards supporting systemic approaches and providing unrestricted grants, this also raises questions about what the right kind of evidence looks like, placing the onus on funders to learn about the systems they’re trying to change.  

We think greater clarity is needed on how different kinds of funders can navigate these questions in practice. 

What do we want to do? 

At NPC, we’ve been developing a set of principles and practices which we believe are central to a balanced and equitable approach to monitoring, evaluating, and learning—building on our own thinking, as well as ideas from across the sector. These practices include getting the basics right around clarity of purpose and transparency, building mutual accountability between funders and grant-holders, and widening the learning lens beyond existing grant-holder relationships.  

We now plan to test and develop some of these approaches, working with a small number of funders and engaging with the organisations that they support to understand what the right balance looks like from a grant recipient’s perspective. We know there won’t be a one size fits all, so we would like to engage with a range of funders and capture existing practices which can provide inspiration to others. 

Ultimately, we want to create an open access framework and toolkit which speaks to the needs of different grant-makers.  

Please get in touch if you would like to know more, get involved, or support this work. We’re keen to hear from both funders and charities interested in these questions. 


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