What it’s like to be under the microscope

What it’s like to be under the microscope

October 2017

Gina Crane | Communications and Learning Manager at Esmée Fairbairn Foundation


When Caroline Mason, our Chief Executive, proposed that Esmée Fairbairn Foundation should be the subject of the 2017 Evaluation Roundtable teaching case, I had some concerns.

What is the Evaluation Roundtable?

The Evaluation Roundtable is a fantastic opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes. Focused on a ‘warts and all’ case study of a real evaluation, participants pick apart the motives and decisions of the funders, non-profits and evaluators involved and propose better ones.

The 2017 teaching case would not be about one specific piece of evaluation, but about Esmée’s whole approach to learning. An approach which I, as Esmée’s Communications and Learning Manager, was responsible for. This time, Evaluation Roundtable attendees would be learning from my mistakes – not other people’s.

Don’t worry, be happy

Was it the right time to share our approach? We had a framework for learning, but no real data yet. Would it be interesting enough for a case study? Our approach is intentionally basic, so that no-one is put off from participating. What if Roundtable participants said that we should throw out everything I’d been doing for the past two years?

When you are feeling worried, IVAR are good people to have around. Ben Cairns and Liz Firth – who did a huge amount of work to put together the teaching case – worked with us to put together a sensible timetable of interviews and review meetings. Liz handled interviewees with staff, Trustees and organisations we fund with great discretion and humour. The Teaching Case itself was balanced and fair and, as a historical document alone, is a valuable asset to us as a foundation.

Under the microscope

During the interview process, and particularly on the day of the Roundtable itself, my fears were replaced by gratitude. What an honour to have a record of our approach to learning and the changes we’ve made over the years. How useful! How brilliant to have all your cleverest colleagues critiquing your approach. What a great opportunity to make it better.

On the day, attending the Roundtable was surreal. The subject of the teaching case must sit quietly and listen for hours while it is discussed, resisting any urge to correct or comment. This was not too difficult. What was hard was to keep track of the discussion and keep my perspective. What is most relevant to respond to when every single comment or question is about your foundation?

It was an intense experience, and the questions about our approach kept coming after the main session, through drinks and into dinner that night. People had definitely found it interesting.

So what did we learn?

Being the subject of the Evaluation Roundtable was a great privilege. From the Teaching Case I learned about the gap between what we say we want to change and what we’ve actually changed. On the day itself I learned that we are all grappling with the same questions, and that colleagues thought we should keep going with our approach.

Above all, I learned that funders have all of the resources to learn from what they do in order to improve, but none of the outside pressure to do it. The organisations we fund have all of pressure but none of the resources. Committing to learn and improve is the least we can do, and the Evaluation Roundtable is a key part of this.

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