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How Learning and Evaluation Drive Our Grantmaking and Investing Strategies

By Loraine Park, Director, Learning and Evaluation

December 12, 2023

Students talking on campus quad.

As a learning organization, ECMC Foundation has always prioritized close communication with our grantees and investees to gather data about the projects we fund as well as the latest research from the field. We review detailed information about each of our grants and investments to understand at the deepest levels how our funding furthered a particular program, made an impact on postsecondary students and helped drive systemic change. Those evaluations also illuminate trends in the Foundation’s work across programs, revealing commonalities shared by individual grants, concepts for future projects and insights into what works and what does not.

In implementing our strategic framework, the Foundation designed a robust learning and evaluation (L&E) strategy and significantly expanded our team. With the addition of two L&E officers, Ali Miller in Los Angeles and Dr. Mitchell Radtke in Minneapolis, we are working in concert with our program team for optimal impact. This collaboration has resulted in the development of core strategies, theories of action, goals and key metrics for our approved initiatives, as well as for potential emerging initiatives housed within our strategically responsive grantmaking portfolio.

For example, the recently-released theory of action for our Basic Needs Initiative will guide a comprehensive, three-pronged approach to reducing the number of postsecondary students experiencing basic need insecurity by 10% by 2033. A new strategy is in development for the Single Mother Student Success Initiative and the Transfer and Credit Mobility Initiative, and work is underway to evaluate the impact of the CTE Leadership Collaborative Initiative. A theory of action, logic model and an initial evaluation plan for the Men of Color Initiative will be finalized in the coming months. L&E is also partnering on the development of the Rural Impact Initiative strategy, which will launch in early 2024.

With the strategically responsive grantmaking team, we’ve tested areas of exploration and opportunity and continue to analyze data on both the front and back end of our grantmaking process to engage in learning cycles and facilitate conversations about projects we may fund in the future.

One Million Degrees (OMD), a mentoring expansion project through the City Colleges of Chicago, Illinois, is a great example of our approach in action. An initial 2020 grant helped support funding for a randomized control trial on OMD’s program which resulted in early findings suggesting that wrap-around programs like OMD could positively impact persistence and completion outcomes for under-resourced community college students. This year, based on follow-up assessments of the program, we provided another grant to OMD to redesign its program and pilot an opt-out model to ensure eligible students can readily access its supports without cumbersome application processes.

We are purposeful in our data collection and evaluation efforts, carefully considering the burden for participants alongside the potential for learning among both internal and external audiences. While we widely share outcomes that are relevant to the field, other findings are more germane to our staff and the ECMC Foundation Board of Directors as they design strategies and make data-driven decisions. Internally, we work closely with our program team to interpret and act upon our findings.

To foster a data-first culture, this year we have focused on making sure every member of our team is adept at analyzing metrics and measurements. To this end, we hosted ECMC Foundation’s first data retreat last spring, facilitated by the Institute for Higher Education Policy. We brought together nearly 30 staff members from both ECMC Foundation and ECMC Group for a day-long “Data 101” training. The sessions highlighted the current postsecondary education landscape, how states have developed integrated data systems, our own L&E practices and areas for future exploration.

Looking back on 2023, I’m proud of the comprehensive L&E strategy we have built. Through the lens of our strategic framework, we remain focused on data literacy and impact measurement, using the insights we gather to inform our grantmaking and investing internally and advance knowledge in the field externally. In the new year and beyond, L&E will undergird ECMC Foundation’s continued growth, with more and larger grants to drive systemic change in postsecondary education.

There is much to look forward to—and much more to learn.

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