Through our work alongside these five communities, we will be able to learn from the collective wisdom of these citizens on how we can best transform how communities promote mental health in everyday life… Through the evaluation process, each grantee will be able to have access to the wisdom and learning from the other four. We believe that can be a powerful mechanism of support.” – Emily Bhandari, Hogg Foundation Strategic Learning and Evaluation Program Officer

learning and evaluation - African American woman leading a brainstorming sessionLearning is a key element of our newest grant initiative, Collaborative Approaches to Well-Being in Rural Communities (WRC). So much so, in fact, that we funded a team of evaluators in conjunction with the initiative’s coordinator right out of the gate. Today’s post highlights this focus on learning—more specifically, what we’re learning about learning as the WRC initiative gets underway, and how a thoughtful, collaborative approach to evaluation can be a win-win for grantees and funders alike.

WRC is the first initiative to reflect our new strategic direction. What’s at stake is greater resilience and mental health for the counties of Bastrop, Brooks, Morris, Nacogdoches, and Victoria.

Joining us for this conversation are WRC lead evaluator Dr. Susan Wolfe, who has over 30 years of experience working with organizations and communities on evaluation, program development and coalition-building, as well as Hogg Foundation staff, including the initiative’s lead, Program Officer and Consumer & Family Liaison Tammy Heinz, Program Officer Rick Ybarra, and Strategic Learning and Evaluation Program Officer Emily Bhandari. Read on for their insights on how learning and evaluation can work hand-in-glove with communities’ efforts to transform health and well-being.

Hogg Foundation: Susan, what most excites you about this project, and the role you’re playing? 

Susan Wolfe: As the evaluator for this initiative, I am excited about the challenge this project presents and the opportunity to contribute to the knowledge base about rural communities, collaboration, and systems level change. I am excited about the focus on systems change and its collaborative, inclusive and empowering approach, and also its focus on resilience, mental health and well-being in rural communities.

I am also excited about the exceptional people I will collaborate with. This includes the various communities, Hogg Foundation staff, the initiative’s coordinator, Sherrye Willis, and her team at Alliance for Greater Works, and my Learning Team members, Dr. Ann Webb Price, Dr. Jon Meyer, and Emily French.

Hogg Foundation: I understand the Learning Team’s first step is to conduct interviews with a number of individuals in each of the five funded communities. What is your approach and what are you hearing from folks?

Susan: Our approach is to keep our minds open and listen and learn. Each person we talk to shares his or her perspective on the community, and its issues and strengths.

Hogg Foundation: Tammy and Emily, what are we doing as this initiative begins to unfold to help facilitate the work the Learning Team is doing in these communities?

Tammy Heinz: We’re building relationships and trust, meeting with community members, and having conversations and challenging the traditional view of funders as non-participatory and standoffish. We are acutely aware of the historical power differential between funders and grantees.

Emily Bhandari: One of the beautiful aspects of this initiative, and what Susan is doing, is that we are letting the communities drive the process and tell us what they need, rather than being prescriptive in our approach. So, it is hard to say what we will do to help this early in the journey, other than to support the communities in whatever way they feel is best.

Hogg Foundation: So, Tammy, set the stage for us. How will these communities benefit from the very hands-on role the Learning Team is taking?

Tammy: Each community has strengths and needs related to building resiliency and promoting mental health and well-being. As the Learning Team identifies these things, the community can begin to develop a plan to cultivate an environment where all community members are living their best lives. We believe this will be essential to the sustainability of their future work toward resiliency, mental health and well-being.

Hogg Foundation: How is Susan’s approach to evaluation unique, and when it comes to this initiative in particular, what are our guiding principles?

Rick Ybarra: Susan’s approach is deeply collaborative. She considers community members to be the experts on their communities. They understand their community’s strengths and challenges. That’s one of the key reasons we selected her for the job.

Susan: I am a community psychologist, so my approach is based on the principles of my field. Our principles include explicit attention to and respect for diversity; understanding human competencies and problems within their social, cultural, economic, geographic and historical contexts; active collaboration with community members using multiple methodologies; and change strategies at multiple levels to foster settings that promote competence and well-being. 

Hogg Foundation: Susan, what advice do you have for grantees when engaging with an evaluator, and what advice can you give to evaluators when engaging with communities?

Susan: For communities, expect to be an equal partner. Be open about your needs and expectations and remember that you have knowledge and expertise, too. Evaluation should help you learn what works in your community and guide future work.

For other evaluators, I would suggest that evaluators partner with communities, use a participatory approach, exercise cultural humility, and be present, be respectful, listen and learn. Working in communities is a continuous learning process.

Hogg Foundation: What about funders? What gets in the way of funders using evaluation to its best advantage?

Tammy: It’s important for funders to know how to use evaluation reports to inform learning and development versus merely as a means to account grantee activities. Funders may ask for significant change without providing outcome measures that lead to the impact they want. Grantees are accustomed to reporting on outputs and other metrics, but it can be challenging to identify outcome measures that point to real change.

Emily: Evaluation is best used when it is used for learning. Learning must have meaning and purpose in order to be prioritized within an organization. Using evaluation for learning needs to be actionable and easy to apply, with clear guidelines for practice that are operational, rather than aspirational. Secondly, there needs to be time dedicated for reflection and cross-unit discussion. At the Hogg Foundation, we’re working hard to integrate these features into our systems and processes to build a true learning organization.

Hogg Foundation: On that note, this initiative’s Learning Team was once known internally as the Evaluation Team. That supports the shift you’re talking about, Emily.

Emily: Exactly. We felt that the term evaluation represented only one part of why we were bringing Susan and her team on to the project. Evaluation is one step in the cycle of learning—and learning is really what we are hoping to get out of her efforts.

Rick: During the foundation’s recent National Advisory meeting, some of our advisors shared their experiences of going into underserved communities and told stories of community members who were put off by the term “evaluation.” It was scary for communities—like they were being graded on their performance or who they were versus coming from a learning context about the process and the community. We want to come at it from a more positive framing—from the context of learning for the sake of better outcomes in the long run.

Hogg Foundation: Susan, we’ve asked you to work alongside our five WRC grantee communities for three years. What do you hope that relationship looks like long term, and what are you hoping to learn from them?

Susan: I hope, at the end of the three years, that we have strong relationships with all community members, and that our relationships are built on trust and mutual respect. I would hope that if I come through their towns in the future that they say, “Hey, good to see you,” and invite me to stop and visit. From them, I am hoping to gain a deeper understanding of life in rural communities, both the strengths and challenges, so that this learning can equip all of us with the tools to create real change for mental health in rural communities.

Hogg Foundation: Emily, how can the WRC initiative be a watershed for communities from a learning and evaluation standpoint?

Emily: It’s a fantastic learning opportunity for the foundation and the communities we serve. Through our work alongside these five communities, we will be able to learn from the collective wisdom of these citizens on how we can best transform how communities promote mental health in everyday life. I’ll be working with the Learning Team to share the learning that is happening in the communities with each of the other grantees in a way that is easy to understand and utilize. Through the evaluation process, each grantee will have access to the wisdom and learning from the other four. We believe that will be a powerful mechanism of support.