“The coffee breaks are a part of the building blocks for getting us to where we need to be – establishing new connections and pushing our thinking in the CREE space.” – Dr. Sedlak, Lumina Foundation
In July, the Expanding the Bench (ETB) Team connected Funders of Evaluation and evaluators from the Advancing Culturally-responsive and Equitable (ACE) Evaluation Network through one-on-one coffee breaks for intentional relationship-building, to expand their networks, and to discuss the practice of culturally responsive and equitable evaluation (CREE).
In this blog, ACE Evaluation Network Members Blanca Flor Guillen-Woods and Erika W. May, and Funder of Evaluation, Dr. Wendy Sedlak, reflect on their coffee break experience. They spoke about how they are adapting to this new virtual world and the need for more opportunities like this to help connect Funders of Evaluation with new evaluators.
Blanca Flor Guillen-Woods, Strategic Learning Partners and Latino Decisions
I’m a Senior Evaluation Specialist at Strategic Learning Partners and Latino Decisions. I’m also an ACE Evaluation Network Member who had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Wendy Sedlak from the Lumina Foundation through a virtual coffee break. The coffee break was one of many coordinated through ETB to connect a diverse set of evaluators with Foundations interested in learning more about culturally responsive and equitable evaluations.
The coffee breaks were helpful in building bridges between foundations and diverse evaluators who understand the importance of including questions of diversity, culture, systemic structures, and equity in their evaluation work. Why do these connections matter?
- Without an existing relationship and history with a foundation, it can be very difficult for an evaluator to secure a contract with the foundation. Foundations, in turn, continue to work with the same evaluation firms they often turn to, which have also traditionally been less diverse.
- Many diverse evaluators work independently or in small firms, which are often overlooked or unknown to foundations. This means they are often not invited to respond to Requests for Proposals or Letters of Interest, again making it difficult to connect with foundations.
- Foundations also play a significant role in defining priorities for their grantees. When a foundation prioritizes culturally responsive and equitable approaches, their grantees follow suit especially if it increases their chances of obtaining funding for their programs. When foundations connect with new partners who provide new insights, diverse perspectives, and focus on equity, it influences their strategies and, in turn, the field as a whole.
- Several foundations are looking to partner with more evaluators of color and indigenous evaluators, who provide diverse perspectives and focus on equity. While the interest is there, we need to be proactive in establishing connections. The coffee breaks helped with this initial step.
- In addition to having strong qualifications and experience, building relationships between evaluators and foundations is often an important precursor to establishing a contract. Foundations, like most people and organizations, have a certain level of comfort with working with existing partners. Working with new partners brings more uncertainty so finding ways to build familiarity, establishing relationships and trust are important to building new partnerships between foundations and evaluators.
- Some evaluators of color and indigenous evaluators are independent consultants or work with small firms which can cause foundations to question their capacity to complete large projects. To address this concern, these evaluators may need to emphasize their larger networks and history of collaboration with partners that increases their capacity for specific projects.
- Finally, I learned that many foundations are open to informational interviews and coffee breaks to learn about potential new partners. Don’t be afraid to proactively contact a foundation for informational interviews, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Thank you to the ETB team for coordinating the coffee breaks, to the courageous foundations who are willing to make essential shifts, and to the evaluators of color that continue to do this important work!
To learn more about Blanca Flor Guillen-Woods, sign up to access the ACE Evaluation Network Database and query for her professional profile. Connect with Blanca on LinkedIn!
Erika W. May, Consult Logix
It was the night before my virtual meeting with Dr. Wendy Sedlak of the Lumina Foundation and I could not sleep! I was anxiously awaiting my first ever “Virtual Coffee Break” meeting with a funder. I pondered over and over the types of questions I should ask. Then I asked myself, “am I really ready for this conversation?” Well, all I can say is, ready or not, I was next in line for my virtual coffee break meeting!
Staying in sync with the theme, I fixed myself a cup of coffee and proceeded to get prepared to start my meeting. The clock struck 10:50 am on June 11 and I was determined that I was going to be on time for my 11:00 am meeting. I clicked join meeting and virtually stepped into another person’s meeting with Wendy. I apologized and quickly got out of there. My reaction could have easily been a new TikTok video because you cannot hide those initial reactions on Zoom. My turn came and the chatter between Wendy and I was nonstop.
We discussed pathways to becoming a research/program evaluator; credentials and certifications; working capital; sub-contracting on a larger grant; the importance of networking; and more importantly in regards to the current racial and health climate of the United States, new and diverse perspectives in evaluation and how the current pandemic is creating real-time data. We also discussed the Lumina Foundation’s “Stronger Nation” data tool that is filled with valuable data on America’s progress toward 2025 in ensuring 60% of Americans hold a credential beyond high school. Check it out to see how we are doing collectively as a nation and individually by state.
The ETB Team is supporting its members with this unique opportunity to meet one-on-one with funders to bridge the gap between funders and evaluators. Otherwise, most of us (i.e., Independent Evaluators) would never be afforded an opportunity like this. To my fellow ACE Evaluation Network Members, get on board, because this virtual coffee break was everything! If you haven’t taken advantage of this opportunity, please make time to do so when the opportunity presents itself again. Thank you, ETB, for your vision and Wendy for the valuable information you shared with me! I am grateful to have had the opportunity!
To learn more about Erika W. May, M.Ed., sign up to access the ACE Evaluation Network Database and query for her professional profile. Connect with Erika on LinkedIn!
Dr. Wendy Sedlak, Lumina Foundation
I have always enjoyed meeting new people over a cup of coffee. It’s a low pressure, relaxed type of meeting that gets you out of the office and depending of course on your coffee or brand loyalty, often meeting on neutral ground. Given COVID-19, the opportunity for in-person coffee meetings are nonexistent and we have all had to be a little more creative in turning our in-person world into a virtual one. Recently, I had the privilege of participating in one-on-one virtual coffee breaks with members of the ACE Evaluation Network. Meeting with five diverse evaluators whose mission is to both drive and support the practice of excellent, culturally responsive and equitable evaluation. I sipped coffee from my home and chatted with people from New Jersey to Louisiana to California all bringing unique experiences and expertise to share. Some of these folks would likely have never come across my radar because of their area of expertise or because they work as individual consultants and are not a part of my network. Topics were far-ranging, from how to conduct culturally responsive and equitable evaluation when the work focuses on systems-change, to how to become a part of the evaluator-funder network when you are a small shop with limited resources. I certainly didn’t have all the answers nor did my ACE network colleagues but just holding these initial conversations lays the foundation of trust and transparency and a relationship for us to build upon in the months ahead.
At the center of our work at Lumina Foundation is a commitment to achieve racial justice and equity including strengthening the foundation’s internal equity work by developing cross-foundation approaches. As a part of this, we have developed specific plans for advancing equity objectives across every department including within our research and evaluation efforts. The key to this effort is diversifying our pool of grantees and increasing current and new grantees’ capacity around conducting CREE and research. The coffee breaks are a part of the building blocks for getting us to where we need to be – establishing new connections and pushing our thinking in the CREE space. These opportunities are a win-win. With upcoming conferences turned virtual and the related hotel lobby and coffee appointments canceled, I am embracing my new reality. In the months ahead, I will make myself a latte, and continue the conversations from the comfort of my own home – because I know that now more than ever, we need diverse and equitable perspectives working together to help solve today’s biggest problems.