Philanthropic Evaluation: Toward an Antiracist Future of Practice

Philanthropic evaluation practitioners must reckon with their myopic and racially exclusive practices – equitable evaluation must be the path forward.

Reviewed by Nick Spragg


This study examines a recent upward trend in the number of foundations embracing racial equity as a core value. It identifies  philanthropic evaluation, a practice that has yet to embrace this core value. The author, Jara Dean-Coffey, explores how race and racism have affected philanthropic evaluation practices and contends that these practices may inadvertently reinforce racism. The author addresses this problem by tracing the co-evolution of both disciplines, identifying its racist myopia, and offering a framework for equitable evaluation practices moving forward.

Jara Dean-Coffey is an evaluation practitioner who has worked with philanthropic foundations for over two decades to strengthen their evaluation skills. She is affiliated with the Luminare Group, a firm that consults with philanthropic organizations  to promote equitable interventions. 

Methods and Findings

This paper analyzes the formation of the evaluation field through a historical lens. The exercise of conducting evaluations  emerged from the federal government and academic research institutions to determine the allocation of public funds and monitor the effectiveness of those funds. From its inception, evaluation, as a practice, was not equipped to interrogate structural inequalities and formulate solutions that promoted equity.  The discipline was conceived by a select number of high-earning, white male industrialists who developed philanthropic foundations (Ford, Rockefeller, Sage) and used evaluations to determine outputs and costs for their foundation work. In the 1980s, the federal government expanded its internal evaluation practices, leaving many evaluation professionals searching for new clients, namely philanthropic foundations. These foundations were identified as an industry through which public dollars could be leveraged to implement large-scale programs with quantifiable, objective data and rigid scientific rigor that needed oversight. In this setting, context and culture were assumed as control variables instead of critical elements of the program design and evaluation approach, which renders equity practices extremely difficult to measure. 

The author then deconstructs the evaluation discipline as a mode of defining, describing, and analyzing the world from the vantage point of a narrow set of definitions, descriptions, and analyses. The racialized distribution of public goods and services has historically favored white “publics” while severely undeserving non-white individuals. According to Dean-Coffey, the consequence of this historical omission is a framing effect that  relies on entrenched assumptions of what is normal and perhaps even right. This unconscious process has undermined the imagined possibilities of alternate evaluation practices that aim to decouple from their historically racist biases. As the nation has been forced to reckon with its structurally embedded racism, the evaluation discipline has recently attempted to generate philanthropic funds based on data showing racialized inequalities. Yet, these efforts have largely reified the prevailing limiting assumptions that advance the scientific logic of its founders. 

In response, Dean-Coffey sets forth recommendations for more equitable evaluation frameworks:

Equitable Evaluation Principles

Principle 1Evaluation work is in service of and contributes to equity.
Principle 2Evaluative work should answer questions about the:
– effect of a strategy on multiple populations
– effect of a strategy on the embedded systemic drivers of inequity
– how historical and cultural context are entangled with structural conditions
Principle 3Evaluative work should be designed and implemented to promote values in equity work:
– cultural competency,
– multicultural validity,
– promoting participant ownership

Source: Luminare Group, Center for Evaluation Innovation, and Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy (2017).


Foundations aiming to promote equitable evaluation must first acknowledge the privileged and racist paradigms that cloak evaluation as objective and neutral. They must explore their personal values, principles, and orthodoxies that generate barriers to equitable evaluation and generate new practices to interrupt these patterns. This includes engaging in a new methodological approach, which tests for variables like culture and context to deconstruct the prevailing assumptions about knowledge, truth, and evidence. Evaluators must become more diverse, and their training must consider multiple modes of conceiving knowledge to produce more robust validity and rigor. 


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