Welcome to the second installment in our MEL Blog Series. Revisit our first post on developing learning frameworks and stay tuned for the final installment on using qualitative data to communicate effectively, coming soon.
How often do organizations prioritize learning from the inside out? At the Walton Family Foundation this kind of learning is part of the day-to-day culture. The Foundation’s Strategy, Learning, and Evaluation Department (SLED) leads this work by using monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) to support both their grantees and the Foundation itself to make progress towards impact goals. EI currently serves as ‘thinking-and-doing’ partners to the Foundation’s Environment Program, helping SLED staff and program officers to ask better questions, effectively manage information, and make more informed decisions to guide adaptive management of their initiatives and investments.
I recently sat down with Kara Stevens, Senior Strategy, Learning, and Evaluation officer at the Foundation, to hear her perspective on the value of strategic learning, the unique ways that foundations can apply MEL, and importantly – how to avoid getting lost in the details.
How is the Walton Family Foundation using monitoring, evaluation, and learning to advance impact and improve over time?
The Foundation creates impact by funding grantees across our three program areas: our home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, K-12 education, and the environment. I support our Environment Program on all things related to measuring and understanding the impact of our work.
We recently pivoted to more of a strategic learning frame as we launch our new five-year strategic plan. In addition to building our muscle internally with strategic learning, we will continually look to engage our grantees and other partners to identify key questions and share what we are learning more broadly. As always, we are asking, if we didn’t meet our goals then what can we learn from it? And what do we need to adjust going forward?
What’s unique about the Foundation’s approach to strategic learning?
What I find valuable about the Foundation’s approach is that we are really clear about what our goals are, which is a key part of understanding whether or not you are making progress. We are doing complex work. MEL can provide the north star, so we know if we are going in the right direction even as we adapt along the way.
Culture is also an important aspect of our strategic learning. We have a great team that’s curious, asks tough questions, and really focuses on impact. Our Program Officers are committed to asking the right questions and our job on the SLED team is to support them in asking and addressing those questions. In addition, we benefit greatly by having leadership who care deeply about MEL and dedicate resources to it, that is invaluable.