Denver: The Center for Evaluation Innovation, or CEI, partners with philanthropy to provide changemakers the space and resources needed to advance racial justice and create an equitable future. CEI leads evaluation projects, consults on strategy and learning, and supports field building through convening, organizing and research efforts.
And here to discuss this work with us are their co-executive directors, Dr. Chera Reid and Julia Coffman. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Chera and Julia.
Chera: Thank you.
Julia: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Denver: Let me start with you, Julia. You founded this organization back in 2009. Share with us some of its history and evolution.
Julia: Sure. Yeah. I founded CEI back in 2009 with a mission of working with philanthropy to support strategy evaluation and learning, and to make sure that philanthropy was on the sort of cutting edge of thinking about what those routines can and should be in the sector.
Around 2017, we started working with Jara Dean-Coffey, who was thinking a lot about the role of strategy evaluation and learning in relation to racial equity, and how those processes can often reinforce orthodoxies in philanthropy that work at odds with, philanthropy’s equity aims.
And she eventually went on to launch the Equitable Evaluation Initiative. And that process really got us thinking about what is our mission and our purpose in this sector. And so, we, around 2019, shifted so that our work was not just supporting philanthropy on evaluation and learning and strategy regardless of what the purpose was. But we stated a very clear purpose about we want those things to be in service of advancing racial equity.
“But our position in this sector is really, for foundations especially, making sure that they see how they approach strategy, how they set goals, who sets goals, how they think about success, who defines success, who measures it; how they measure it really matters in that journey.”
Denver: Let me ask you a little bit more about that, Julia, in terms of moving the needle, because I talk to so many organizations, and what they’re trying to do is center racial equity in their work and their organization, and invariably, they tell me, “This is really slow, and I know it’s going to be a long process.”
Would you have any advice in terms of an organization that’s really gone through that, and I’m sure is still in the midst of going through it… It doesn’t happen just like that… that you could pass on in terms of what you really needed to do as an organization to make that kind of shift that you made back in 2019?
Julia: Yeah, I think it’s important to have a clear vision of what you are ultimately headed toward and where you are in relation to that vision. I think for most organizations who have shifted to that purpose, it is an incremental process of making change.
But our position in this sector is really, for foundations especially, making sure that they see how they approach strategy, how they set goals, who sets goals, how they think about success, who defines success, who measures it; how they measure it really matters in that journey.
“We want to be a go-to resource to, again, continue to provide people with the support for staying the course as well as to be a source of really, again, coming into your better self, convening around common challenges in the field, possibilities in the field, and really examining our day-to-day practices.”
Denver: One of the roles you play, Chera, is leading the evaluation roundtables. Tell us what that is and what it does.
Chera: Yeah, so the evaluation roundtable: First, I think, it’s important to know that it was this really beautiful gift that CEI was given when Julia was the sole executive director, and Patti Patrizi, who worked for many years at The Pew Charitable Trust, entrusted Julia’s leadership and the organization with this network of evaluation directors.
This is as it was known at the time. This was people coming together who really both needed individual level support to keep going, stay the course in their jobs, and people who wanted to do something together. So, when I first came to CEI, I sat down and talked with Patti, and Patti said to me what I wanted was a revolution.
And so, I think, since then, the couple of years I’ve been at CEI, I’ve been really holding on to that big question and that intent. So, the evaluation roundtable is really a shorthand now for our external-facing work, the platform, the work of bringing people together, inviting people in to be their better selves, whether their work is a director or a brand-new learning officer.
If their work is adjacent as a strategy director or chief impact officer, and they have some responsibility for really stewarding their organization as a learning organization, we want to be a go-to resource to, again, continue to provide people with the support for staying the course as well as to be a source of really, again, coming into your better self, convening around common challenges in the field, possibilities in the field, and really examining our day-to-day practices. And so, we do that through a mix of convening both nationally, topically, and with small groups of people.
Denver: You just mentioned common challenges. What would be one major common challenge that jumps to your mind?
Chera: Oh gosh. Well, I laughed because it’s the age-old question of accountability, my gosh. So, you know, Denver, I don’t have to tell you that philanthropy is known for being very, well on the accountability scale, and everybody says, “Oh, it’s not accountable, it’s a special tax status” which is also true.
And so, when we bring an equity, and moreover, when we bring a justice lens to our work, philanthropy cannot continue to do business as usual. And so, accountability, which has typically flowed in the direction of foundation to non-profit sector, at least needs to come back and say non-profit sector and philanthropy are in relationship.
Accountability at least needs to be shared. And so, what we find in working again with groups, whether they’re national, regional, or topical, is as soon as we say, “Yes, let’s share accountability,” folks say, “Yes, we are there, we believe it.” And then we start to say, “Okay, let’s move forward. I mean, CEI is a non-profit; let’s move forward with a grant or a contract to do some work together.”
And their process involves eight different spreadsheets as a grant seeker or contractor and three different units in an organization to get there. And we say, “Yeah, it looks like we have a lot of work to do on this shared accountability thing. Your processes are not matching your overall value intent.”
So, that’s one example, that it just really gets us to: Where is the field? Where is opportunity to really dig in and say, “Well, what do your practices, and what do your internal processes look like? How do we work together to align them better to your values and to your ideals?” And accountability, it’s an easy one and it’s an age-old question, and we find that we often need to dig in there.
Denver: Yeah, there’s just not enough narrative of people talking to one another, and there are too many damn boxes to fill in, which really don’t tell you anything, but it satisfies somebody with the green eye shades, but it really doesn’t get to the point of things. Julia, talk to us about causal analysis. How does that differ from typical evaluations, and how does that help address inequities?
Julia: So, at CEI, we spend time thinking about what practices are in place in philanthropy regarding evaluation. What’s missing? What do we think is needed in order to help advance racial equity?
And one of the things that we’ve noticed, and others I’ve noticed too, is that in philanthropy, there’s often a lack of really examining or interrogating cause and effect between what was funded and what happened as a result of that.
And there are a lot of reasons for that, and I think the complexity of the work that we do and philanthropy funds is one of those reasons, but in order to really understand what are the effects of particular approaches on specific populations, and to look at really what is driving problems, and the structural roots of the problems that philanthropy focuses on, we really need to approach more cause-and-effect analysis in ways that respect the work, respect the people doing the work, and ultimately are focused on the aim of understanding what works in reducing disparities.
Denver: Yeah. Those disparities, in large part, are caused by this power differential. Talk a little bit about that power differential and also how advocacy plays into all that because you’re looking at that power dynamic as it relates to advocacy beyond just trying to win those advocacy battles, correct?
Julia: That’s right. Yeah. So, we, at CEI, spend a lot of time thinking about power and looking at power and studying power in various ways. And so, it shows up really in all of our work. So, for example, we support foundations on how they approach strategy and how they develop strategy.
And so, we look at power in terms of who’s making decisions about what the goals of a strategy should be; at what point is external input a factor in making those decisions? Is it ever a factor? So, we really pay a lot of attention to what is the role of power in those processes. So, it’s not just what you fund, but how you go about funding.
We also look at power in the things that we evaluate like advocacy and movement-building. And, for our advocacy work– which we’ve been engaged in for a very long time– we realized that we really need to pay attention to not just: Are we winning? Or are strategies resulting in policy change and wins? But are they building the power of individuals and communities who are affected by the problems that those policies are focused on, so that those wins sustain, so that the political representation of those communities ultimately increases long term?
Denver: Yeah, that’s a great distinction because sometimes we focus so much on what is accomplished and not how it’s accomplished, and the how it’s accomplished is the thing that actually lasts a lot longer than the what is just on a to-do list; the how is essentially how you’re going to operate into the future.
Chera, how would you categorize philanthropy’s response to the call for racial justice?
Chera: Sure. First, I want to go back to what Julia was just speaking about and also name that we, in our work as students of power, acknowledge the ways that philanthropy has been really narrowly focused on political wins.
So, if you understand or are familiar with “movement capture” or “elite capture,” those concepts, this is what philanthropy is known for doing– for focusing narrowly, for defining what matters and really often co-opting movements and taking over. And philanthropy, of course, has also been the biggest funder of movement in the United States.
And so, this work, the expanding what matters and getting into the how is a really critical part of how we work. So, I wanted to underscore that because I think it’s worth saying. And also, as an organization, we are a justice organization, and we have to speak into the histories that have not always been helpful to us… and at times quite harmful to the very communities that philanthropy really intends to partner with and to support.
Denver: Yeah. How would you categorize philanthropy’s response to the call for racial justice?
Chera: Yeah, it’s a great question. Two things that I would highlight. First, we’re living it right now. We are responding; philanthropy is responding to calls for racial justice right now. And so, I think that philanthropy is really at a choice point, which is about: What is its long arc going to be? How are we going to tell the story of who philanthropy was at this time to our grandchildren when kids are looking at their… it probably won’t be books in our grandchildren’s or my grandchildren’s time, it’ll probably be something else, at least a tablet, if it doesn’t just pop up on their hands, I don’t know, but however we tell the story.
We are in that moment right now. This is the opening where philanthropy really has to decide what is the shape of the river going to be, what is that arc going to be, how will we speak into it. And so, a couple of things I would highlight. I tend to be more optimistic, grounded and optimistic, so I’m going to point to what I think is really promising.
So, two things. One, I think that the work that the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, PRE, is doing in concert with Candid to really understand what does giving look like across the philanthropic sector in the US to racial justice, particularly in the late 2010 to today, is really important because foundations need to be able to see themselves individually, and moreover to see themselves among their peers.
And so, as soon as we talk about data and national data sets, people start picking apart the methods and talk about all of the weaknesses. That was nothing new in that we inherited that tradition from the academy, from research, and we cannot ignore that we have data that have been systematically collected and analyzed and available to us.
We have to make meaning from what we have before us, and the work that Candid and PRE are doing to help us to ask questions about giving in service to racial justice, our organizational foundation commitments commensurate with the dollars, those are the right questions.
The second thing I would highlight is our partnership with the Minnesota Black Collective Foundation, which is a brand-new organization, and it’s an organization that is really, grounded in both possibility and the history of pain.
And so, this is a group of Black philanthropic leaders: Chanda Smith Baker at the Minneapolis Foundation; Repa Mekha, Nexus Community Partners; Lule Mola, formally of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, now the founding CEO of the Collective, who came together after George Floyd’s violent murder and said, “We are hurting, and we have to see into possibility.” They were holding the pain and the possibility and so, now, are establishing Minnesota’s first Black-led community foundation, and the road will be the road in this work.
And when I think about possibility, the shape of the river, I say we need to really get behind efforts such as this that are asking the question fundamentally. How close or how far are we from our ideals? What are our opportunities for philanthropy to really be in solidarity with Black people and communities with the genius of Black-led change? What are opportunities for white folks, indigenous folks, people who identify as Brown, how do we meet at our intersections and serve it to racial justice?
So, I think that there’s a lot of work going on, so much to be done, and there are some really promising possibilities that people are putting out and inviting us into.
Denver: Yeah, it’s a generational challenge, that’s for sure, and we’re going to see how we play this out. Julia, let’s talk about creating channels. We’re always looking to create channels for people who’ve been excluded from the power structure to have a platform in which to address. What does that really look like in practices?
Sometimes, we say we’ve listened, but that always seems a little anemic to me. So, I was just wondering: What do we really mean by creating channels to have voices that have not been heard to really be heard?
Julia: I’d like to talk about that again in the context of one of the routines that we work on philanthropy. So, take it back to the strategy process, which I think is an often-overlooked routine and that can really work at odds with equity aspirations. And so, for example, in a strategy process in the past and present, many foundations will conduct listening tours as they’re considering what their future investment strategies will be, talking to folks in the community, which is a great practice.
But ultimately, I think we’re trying to think about how do we position communities as the drivers of decisions, about both what the problems to be addressed are, as well as the solutions that get chosen by foundations… and so, positioning communities differently in the process, not just as one of many inputs, but as the real driver.
And also, being genuine about not just going to communities after decisions have been made and saying, “What do you think?” That’s too late in the process. So, we’re rethinking how those processes are played out, so that communities are positioned much differently.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. I really like the idea too of asking them to define the problem. So often we go to communities and say: What would you do with this problem when it may not even be the problem, and that’s always a big piece of it.
Julia, let me ask you about systems change because I’m really curious about this in terms of …evaluation’s hard enough in this one-dimensional world of this is what we do, and this is who we look to support and et cetera, et cetera.
Systems change is a whole different animal. It’s so much more complex. I know you guys don’t shy away from complex social change. So, how does evaluation play a cogent role in things which are more difficult like systems change… and it’s a much longer timeframe, et cetera, etcetera? How do you think about that?
Julia: Sure. So, first of all, I think it’s important for us to recognize that really any strategy takes place in the system. And so, part of our role is pointing that out as well as lifting up: what does that system look like. Who are the other actors in that system, so that we’re not just thinking we are an independent actor trying to address problems? So, it’s making that system visible, looking at all the interdependencies among actors and efforts in that system.
And then, complex systems change evaluation really looks at the levers that you can push in a system, and not just simple relationships, but looking at how do you make systems change. You can change policies, practices, mindsets… some of those variables that in a traditional program evaluation approach would go overlooked.
Also, I want to make sure I say that with systems change, we are realistic about how change happens, as well as how long it can take to achieve change. So, not an arbitrary timeline of we expect to change the system in two years, but: What can you accomplish? What does traction look like? What does progress look like?… but really trying to be realistic of what that requires.
Denver: Yeah. Really smart. You almost have to redefine what success looks like because our success is so short term, it’s like the next quarter on Wall Street. And that ain’t going to lead to any kind of significant systems change. Chera, looking at the work that you do, how could philanthropy be more supportive of what you guys are doing?
Chera: That’s a great question. I think one of the things that happens so often is that learning and evaluation is thought of as off to the side. Our organization is all too often considered to be an infrastructure organization that sits off to the side, and we will let you know when we need you. That sort of sitting in a historic fee-for-service model, when in fact, as we have been speaking about, CEI, is a justice organization. We are doing that through research strategy in partnership with the philanthropic sector. And it’s really time to place the work of learning, the work of research, of evaluation in conversation wholly with strategy, and not off to the side.
And so, as much as we appreciate small sponsorships from foundations that are historically sitting again in their philanthropic-serving institution or infrastructure dollars, CEI is really here trying to show up for justice, to be a partner alongside boards, alongside CEOs.
I mentioned the work of the Minnesota Black Collective Foundation. That is work with three executive-level leaders in philanthropy and Minnesota. That is justice work. And our organization, for us to be able to step into fully what we are here to do and what we can do, we need to fundamentally be understood as such, and have, frankly, the resources to follow.
“And people are messy, change, transformation, so messy, not linear. And at times, Julia and I, really, we have to check in and say, “Was that what just happened there? Did you see that too? Did you experience? Did you get that request?” Because people make mistakes, people make mistakes, people trip on themselves. I trip on myself. I make mistakes.
And we need to, in this pursuit of justice, be able to check in to support each other and also to call it what it is when we experience it at times. And it’s really helpful being in co-leadership to be able to have a bit of triangulation that’s possible.”
Denver: Yeah, because I do think, in some ways, we always look incorrectly as evaluation being the end of the process, but if you really begin with evaluation at the beginning of the process in terms of what you’re looking to achieve, it really then informs everything you do. And that, unfortunately, is not the way that the sector has looked at it.
Let me ask you both this question. I’ll start with you, Chera. That’s the nature of leadership. I’d be curious as to how you see leading a social enterprise organization, a social justice organization like CEI… how that is changing… of your organization or other organizations, and also what’s it like, the up and down of being co-executive director?
Chera: Yeah, great question. I think I’ll start with the co-leadership. One thing that we are seeing is more organizations that are forward-thinking, that are justice organizations, exploring co-leadership as a possibility if not doing it. And so, for us, I would name that ProInspire, a non-profit organization that also works a lot with philanthropy and non-profit, that was founded coincidentally, same year, 2009…
Denver: Yeah, Monisha’s been on the show.
Chera: Yep. And so, Monisha Kapila and Bianca Casanova Anderson, they’re friends of ours now, friends in this work. And we, not so long ago, were really inspired by what we saw in co-leadership and the possibilities.
And Julia and I got to talking about it, and we decided to go for it ourselves and have since then really been thinking about and really trying to practice co-leadership as a multiplier. As I mentioned, CEI is a justice organization, and we’re not going to do that with only one person being the justice person.
One of the mistakes, honestly, a lot of organizations make is they have this one person, and we’re seeing this play out all over the place, the corporate and social sector. One person is going to be the equity person for the whole organization, and everybody else is going to do business as usual.
That is ridiculous. So, at CEI, we see this, the mission, advancing our mission is everybody’s work. And Julia and I think a lot about the multiplier. So, we have what we do together. We are here together speaking as CEI with you, Denver, and with your audience. We have Julia’s audiences.
Julia has worked with philanthropy for over two decades, has particular audiences, people who hear what she is bringing, her brilliance. We have my audiences, the people who are really called in, invited in to what I’m bringing. And so, if we can harness that and that of our entire team, frankly, we think about what a difference we could make as a, as we say, small and mighty organization. But in this time, we believe that our leadership model, co-leadership, is really fit for the purpose in a time such as this. It’s really important that we are able to have this multiplier.
The other piece of it is we also need to be able to support one another and understand what’s going on here, what may be going on there. This is a time of tremendous possibility and opening in philanthropy. Is it a time of great change? I’d like to think so. Maybe it’s not as fast or as urgent as many of us would like, but there is a generational opening here.
And people are messy, change, transformation, so messy, not linear. And at times, Julia and I, really, we have to check in and say, “Was that what just happened there? Did you see that too? Did you experience? Did you get that request?” Because people make mistakes, people make mistakes, people trip on themselves. I trip on myself. I make mistakes.
And we need to, in this pursuit of justice, be able to check in to support each other and also to call it what it is when we experience it at times. And it’s really helpful being in co-leadership to be able to have a bit of triangulation that’s possible.
Denver: “Did I hear that right? Did he really say that?” It’s always nice to have some validation around there. Julia, what would you say? You’ve been leading this organization since 2009. So, in a broader sense, how have you seen the nature of leadership of a non-profit or an NGO change over the course of the last 13 years… and then your take on co-leadership?
Julia: Yeah, thank you for that question. I think, when CEI made the change in mission and stated our purpose more clearly, and Chera joined the organization, it became very clear to me as a white woman leading this organization that a co-leadership model that featured Black-led leadership alongside me was critically important and necessary.
And, in our work, we talk about the fact that we do both transformation… We work on transformation in the sector, and we work on reform work, and Chera’s leadership has been really critical for visioning and for seeing a different future and what is possible. And, we’ve done that visioning together.
But her work, we don’t just divide labor, but we do work on different things. Given what Chera said earlier about… we have different audiences and a different focus in our work at times. And she really leads on transformation in the sector. And I work more on the reform work of: how do we make incremental change toward our equity aims so that we align what we do and how we do it with our aspirations.
Denver: Yeah. And I see this just about with everyone I talk to these days, you really do need a team. It’s very hard to find the skills in one person because things have become so complex. And I also see other teams where one person looks at the immediate needs, and the other is looking 10 years into the future… whatever that combination may be, it just seems that funders are looking to fund teams more than they are individuals, and particularly for start-up organizations.
Let me close with this and I’m going to start with you, Julia. What is one thing, one initiative that you’re engaged in right now that really has you excited, the kind of thing you can’t sleep at night, not because you’re worried, because you’re so damn excited, you can’t wait to get up in the morning?
Julia: I would like to lift up what I started with, which is the Equitable Evaluation Initiative that our friend and colleague, Jara Dean-Coffey, has led and, I think, really in the years that we’ve worked with Jara, has had that work, and her work has had a significant impact on me as an individual practitioner in the sector as well as a leader of a non-profit. And the principles and the Equitable Evaluation framework that the initiative works on in the sector, I think, is the most exciting initiative that I am connected to.
“And, over the course of this year, we’ve conducted research interviews with over 25 Black, Brown, and people-of-color foundation CEOs. We’ve been listening for their radical imagination. We’ve been hearing them dream into what a multi-racial and just democracy could be. We’ve been asking about who philanthropy is, and if philanthropy is in that future, and what that would mean.”
Denver: Yeah, it really has challenged the orthodoxies of how foundations go about their work in so many different ways. Chera, how about you? What’s the other thing that’s got you going?
Chera: Yeah. So, one of the things that brought me to CEI was a real desire I was feeling for creative space and to pursue some work. And so, one of the things that I’ve been able to do and for me is my most exciting thing is a body of research that I have led together with our Senior Fellow, Efrain Gutierrez; and Trinel Torian, who’s a PhD candidate in Sociology at Berkeley.
And, over the course of this year, we’ve conducted research interviews with over 25 Black, Brown, and people-of-color foundation CEOs. We’ve been listening for their radical imagination. We’ve been hearing them dream into what a multi-racial and just democracy could be. We’ve been asking about who philanthropy is, and if philanthropy is in that future, and what that would mean.
And so, we are very soon to launch that work publicly and to invite people in to engage with us in the meaning-making, in the possibility-making that’s going to come out of it. But for today, what I would say is that I’m incredibly humbled by seeing and hearing the love, the beauty, the dignity that these CEOs are leading with.
Many of the people are personally not only in their lived experience, based on their identities and family origins and ancestors, but in their work, a lot of folks come from movement work, come from working in public health clinics, come from working… and lawyers in public defense.
And so, to see who they have always been and how it’s playing out at these top levels of leadership in the sector gives me a lot of hope, and I’m so excited to be able to share this and to continue inviting people in in the very near future.
Denver: Very inspiring. Julia, for people and listeners who want to learn more about the Center for Evaluation Innovation, tell us a little bit about your website and what kind of information they’ll find on it.
Julia: Yeah, sure, www.evaluationinnovation.org. Come to our website to see the rich set of resources that we offer, not only from things that CEI has created, but also collaborators. And it really is a platform for lifting up our work and others related to our shared purpose.
Denver: Fantastic. Well, thanks, Julia and Chera for being here today. It was just a delight to have you both on the program. Thanks.
Julia: Thank you.
Chera: Thank you.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Ever-Changing World, will be released later this year.Listen to more The Business of Giving episodes here. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify to get notified of new episodes. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and on Facebook.