Strategy, learning, and evaluation are at the core of who we are at the Walton Family Foundation. Our strategy, learning, and evaluation department (SLED) plays a central role in providing actionable information that helps inform decision-making about individual grants as well as overall strategy. We are dedicated to learning not only from our own grantmaking, but also with and from our grantees and partners in the field. Through a strategic approach to learning, we can develop stronger long-term plans and strategies to achieve the greatest impact.
Our guiding framework
This framework illustrates how our research, evaluation, and learning activities are closely linked to strategic planning, allowing us to adapt our approach as we go.
The core elements of our strategic learning cycle are designed to help us:
- Engage in deep learning through reflection and dialogue across levels, roles, and programs;
- Bring greater quality and consistency to strategic planning;
- Provide more relevant and useful information and opportunities for learning at the strategy level, enabling us to course-correct in real time;
- Navigate complexity and be a more effective actor in promoting systems change in cities and fields where we work; and
- Get maximum value out of our evaluation investments.
Strategic learning questions
A central part of our strategic learning cycle is the development and exploration of a set of Strategic Learning Questions for each program. We use these broad questions to structure our research, evaluation, and learning activities over the course of the year. By asking ourselves direct – and sometimes tough – questions, we are able to more effectively evaluate our philanthropic impact and make data-informed decisions about how to adjust our strategy going forward.
Some examples of our Strategic Learning Questions include:
In the Home Region Program:
- To what extent are foundation investments creating an equitable and inclusive region in Northwest Arkansas? To what extent does the economic, political, historic, and social climate in the region influence progress toward our vision of Northwest Arkansas being a vibrant and prosperous place?
In the K-12 Education Program:
- To what extent have our city-based strategies improved student outcomes at scale and within/across sectors?
In the Environment Program:
- To what extent are our pilot/demonstration projects generating the results we expect, both on the ground and otherwise? In what ways can we take pilots to scale – both in terms of increased on-the-ground work and policy change?
1. Provide actionable information SLED will deliver its products and services in a timely and efficient manner to ensure foundation leaders have the information they need to important strategic decisions in real time. We will focus on exploring key issues; we won’t attempt to measure everything.
2. Be an objective internal resource SLED will maintain independence to minimize actual or perceived conflicts of interest. This applies both to internal and external evaluations.
3. Be a collaborative partner with board, staff, grantees and other external partners SLED will foster constructive discussion with program staff, the board and community partners to improve evaluation approaches and results through the exchange of ideas and perspectives.
4. Use appropriately rigorous and varied research and evaluation methods Evaluations will focus on the most useful information that can be obtained and adjust the methodology accordingly to use the best available approach. The SLED will use multiple data collection methods; we value both quantitative and qualitative data.
5. Be cost effective When possible and appropriate, the SLED will use publicly available (free or low-cost) data and in-house capacity. Our level of investment research and evaluation will be scaled appropriately to the level of the foundation’s investment in a project or program.
Approach to grant evaluation
At the foundation, each grant we make includes a set of performance measures. These measures help ensure that the foundation and its grantees have a shared vision of success and a shared understanding of how progress will be measured.
To promote objectivity and rigor, we prioritize the use of quantitative targets and analyses to measure performance. This is a challenging undertaking. Much of our work seeks to reform large, complex, and entrenched systems, such as K-12 education in the United States or fisheries management around the world. Progress in effecting such change can be difficult to assess quantitatively, and quantitative targets can be challenging to set. As a result, we sometimes include qualitative measures as well, to help evaluators consider and integrate complex and disparate information.
The performance measures for each grant are co-developed by grantees and their program officers, with support from SLED. Grantees are expected to report on these measures at pre-determined intervals throughout the grant period. Data from grantee reports helps inform foundation decision-making about future grants, as well as consideration of our Strategic Learning Questions.
All Walton Family Foundation grant applicants are encouraged to review the materials below, which explain how to compose complete and useful performance measures.