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Letting grantees lead: What we’re learning from the BUILD evaluation

BUILD is the Ford Foundation's six-year, $1 billion dollar commitment to building institutions and networks. BUILD provides multiyear commitments, general operating support, and dedicated funding for institutional strengthening to our grantee partners to build more durable, more resilient, more networked, and more impactful organizations and networks to combat inequality. Convenings and technical assistance, evaluation, and strategic communications round out the BUILD model.

We are more than three years into BUILD, with over 250 BUILD grantee partners in 26 countries and incalculable hours of BUILD grant-making experience. Although some BUILD grants are just getting off the ground, and others are yet to be determined, our very first set of BUILD grants will end in early 2021.

Learning and evaluating within complexity

We are committed to learning from the BUILD model, both to improve our own practices and to share lessons with the broader field of philanthropy. In early 2018, we launched the BUILD evaluation with our external evaluation partner, NIRAS. We are taking a developmental approach, which entails the NIRAS team accompanying the Ford Foundation and our BUILD grantee partners on the journey, collecting quantitative and qualitative data, providing real-time feedback for learning and program adjustments, and tracking both emerging issues as well as longitudinal impacts. Ultimately, our hope is that the evaluation will contribute to more nuanced evidence and compelling stories about BUILD as a grant-making approach, which will help shift the field of philanthropy toward providing more flexible, grantee-centered support.

In 2018, the NIRAS team began a “familiarization phase,” during which they got to know BUILD from all angles. The evaluation team interviewed 47 BUILD grantees, analyzed 154 proposals, reviewed program documents, and met with more than 21 Ford program staff, learning about how BUILD was designed, interpreted, implemented, and experienced.

Early insights: Some hunches, some conditions, some lessons

The early data suggest that the promise of BUILD is real. It seems clear, even at this early stage, that a combination of flexible funding and technical assistance has considerable potential as a transformative approach to grant making.

In its Spring 2019 familiarization report, NIRAS documented some early observations about BUILD and posited a few hunches about program impact to explore further. We share them here with the important caution that it is too early to tell whether all of these hunches will prove correct—change takes time, and so does evaluation.

  • A key feature of BUILD is the dedicated focus on institutional strengthening. Through institutional strengthening, BUILD grantees are able to put right-size, purpose-built systems and operations in place to support staffing, monitoring, evaluation and learning, and programmatic and financial systems that support mission and strategy.
  • The five-year BUILD funding commitment appears to be decisive. The commitment to five years of predictable funding enables grantees to focus on strengthening their organizations; it also enables a focus on strategy.
  • BUILD is deepening relationships between Ford and grantees. BUILD has provided a basis for a more constructive and trusting relationship, based on a mutual commitment to seeing how stronger institutions can contribute to social justice.
  • BUILD’s convening has the potential to be a powerful lever. Grantees are keen to learn from one another and share experiences. Where convenings and peer-to-peer exchanges have happened, grantees report increased levels of satisfaction and learning. BUILD is planning to increase its optional convening and peer learning offerings over the next 18 months.
  • There is growing external interest in BUILD. Grantee partners regard the BUILD model as something they can actively showcase in their dialogue with other funders. Being part of BUILD has begun to endow grantees with the increased confidence to leverage support from other funders, or in some cases to negotiate more favorable terms of funding. There are also reports of interest from other funders in the BUILD approach, with some examples of this interest leading to critical reflection over how to change donor-grantee relationships.

While these broader hunches are promising, the evaluation team noted key factors that are affecting how BUILD grants are implemented by social justice institutions.

  • Context counts. Grantees’ experiences of engaging with BUILD have differed, in large part depending on how BUILD was introduced within different regions, program strategies, and time frames. There is a range of understanding of what BUILD contributes depending on those differences. BUILD is not a one-size-fits-all approach, nor do we believe it should be. However, earlier clarity and consistency about how BUILD could be interpreted and applied by grant-making teams might have smoothed out our initial efforts with less of a “whiplash” effect on our partners.
  • Impacts of strategy revision on BUILD. The rollout of BUILD cannot be viewed in isolation from the foundation’s previous and ongoing processes of revising its strategies. As foundations change their strategies, it affects grantees’ ability to do their own work, because Ford’s internal strategic planning processes and change management are also experienced by our BUILD grantees. This has an effect on Ford’s ability to be clear and consistent and manage expectations about BUILD. Additionally, some strategy changes may fundamentally shift the intention of BUILD support from long-term, trust-based funding to critical partners to a de facto tie-off grant.
  • BUILD needs to be adaptable and flexible. Grantees recognize that social justice work is a dynamic terrain, and they see BUILD as providing them both the stability and flexibility they need to shift resources and respond quickly. However, that also requires that BUILD grant makers accept that there will be many surprises during the five-year journey. The long-term and flexible aspect of this grant making requires a change in perspective, one that normalizes disruption and allows for response, learning, and adaptation. In most cases, it requires a mindset of steady accompaniment rather than abrupt reaction.

Finally, in its report, the NIRAS team offered some in-course lessons for improvement of the BUILD initiative.

  • Ford should focus on facilitation of greater exchange, collaboration, partnership, and network-weaving for grantees. This allows Ford to leverage its position and resources, with fewer assumptions about its ability to build a field.
  • Ford should invest in training, on-boarding, and support of program staff to more evenly implement BUILD.
  • Ford should ensure clearer communication and transparency about the future of the BUILD initiative, “warts and all.” There is a strong desire among grantees for greater transparency about BUILD’s intentions, priorities, and future direction now that the procedures for BUILD are becoming stabilized.
  • Ford should broaden its safety and security frame from just physical and digital security measures to better include staff protection and well-being. This reflects the emerging importance of the issue of safety and security, as well as grantee experience and perspective on addressing it.

What’s next?

In the next phase of the evaluation, NIRAS has gathered significant input from Ford staff and BUILD grantees, and has identified seven intensive case studies to more closely examine how BUILD works (or doesn’t) and what the optimal conditions are for the program’s success for different types of BUILD grantees. More than 56 BUILD grantees will be reflected in this initial round of case studies, with eight grantees participating in each case study. A diverse set of grantees is proposed for each case study, and we anticipate that as a group they will be representative of the BUILD experience for organizations of various types and in various contexts.

A full description of the case studies is included in the Initial Trend Analysis (ITA) Report. The seven initial case studies (more will be added later) will focus on

  • Emerging organizations: Organizations that are using the grant to formalize and stabilize themselves after having worked with less formalized processes and systems and/or less complex or specialized structures or staff.
  • Established organizations: Organizations that have been in existence for at least 15 years, with stable and sizable budgets and strong external reputations.
  • Organizations engaging the grassroots: Organizations engaging large groups of people in a grassroots manner.
  • Networks: Organizations that serve as “hubs” supporting, mediating, and/or facilitating groups of organizations (“nodes”) with shared values and a common commitment to bring about social change through their collective action.
  • Organizations historically led by people of color: Organizations confronting long-standing structural marginalization based on the race/ethnicity of their historic leadership.
  • Leadership transitions: Organizations that have recently experienced a leadership transition or will soon be going through one.
  • Challenging environments: Organizations facing a broad range of direct or potential threats to their work, that recognize the “duty of care” they hold for their staff, and their responsibility not to augment the risks faced by their partners and the communities with which they work.

Along with the case studies, a cohort-wide survey will be administered with all active BUILD grantees. Additional analyses will be conducted using proposals and reports, grant coding, and financial data. All the while, we will work with NIRAS to ensure we are only gathering useful data, in order not to create undue burdens on our grantees.

We anticipate the first evaluative phase report and case studies will be completed in spring 2020. In the meantime, we welcome your questions and comments! Feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].