Newly formed in 2009, the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit at Ford Foundation set out to test a new set of grantmaking approaches and funding strategies which aimed to promote equity in 10 metropolitan regions and nationally. Recognizing that this effort situated them at the frontlines of social change philanthropy, the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit aimed to:
- Involve its grantees as active partners in learning;
- Validate its approaches by ensuring its grantmaking was informed by lessons learned on the ground; and
- Maximize the impact of the foundation’s investments in communities across the country. From the inception of this ambitious project, the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit recognized evaluation as a key component, and engaged Success Measures to develop and lead an evaluation learning initiative that would help it gauge its progress towards achieving these goals.
Historically, community development interventions were often targeted at the neighborhood level. Over the past two decades, researchers, policymakers and practitioners increasingly observed that social and policy problems transcend neighborhood boundaries. Building on substantive research demonstrating that social and racial equity leads to stronger, more competitive and resilient regional economies, the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit focused on funding efforts to promote equity at the regional level in 10 metro areas through a multi-pronged strategy that sought to improve residents’ access to quality affordable housing, good jobs, public transit, and other key services. Concurrently, the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit supported a set of national grantees – academics; thought leaders; a range of practitioners – who served both as innovators and connectors, as a means of ensuring that policy at the national level was informed by successful demonstrations at the local and regional level.
Approach & Solutions
Success Measures worked with the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit and this cohort of grantees to help frame and ground the Foundation’s thinking by developing a theory of change which would document key learning, as well as capture the recalibration of program officers’ grantmaking strategies over time. To accommodate the formidable size and scope of the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit’s portfolio (exceeding 200 grantees at the end of the five-year initiative), Success Measures developed a matrix of short- and mid-term outcomes which helped structure the evaluation to track grantees’ contributions toward the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit’s long-term social change goals. Over the course of the multi-year project, Success Measures adapted its evaluation approach, analysis and reporting to cohere with internal institutional changes as shifts within the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit and the Foundation occurred, while also addressing the changing social, economic and political realities within which grantees were working. Key elements of this highly participatory, developmental evaluation approach included:
- Grounding the evaluation in context. Success Measures developed comprehensive evaluative profiles of nine of the 10 funded metro areas, providing a baseline of data and a common frame for grantees, program officers and evaluators to use when measuring progress and describing wins and successes within the unique context of each place. Informed by in-depth interviews, site visits, and a wealth of secondary data, each profile provided an up-to-date overview of demographic and economic conditions, the fiscal and political environment, grantees’ funded activities and critical partners and stakeholders.
- Facilitating grantees’ participation in data selection and analysis. Success Measures worked with Metropolitan Opportunity Unit senior staff to identify a group of grantees in each metro who provided consistent critical review, and made substantial contributions to evaluation reports. Through bi-monthly calls and an annual participatory analysis meeting, these advisory groups created an avenue for grantees to provide updates on their work, participate in ongoing analysis and offer valuable feedback on the evaluation effort.
- Contributing to a culture of internal learning and reflection. Success Measures facilitated periodic conversations with Foundation program officers, focused on holistic reflection of the funding strategies set in place, including recalibration of those approaches as grantees’ needs shifted in response to emerging challenges and opportunities. Through bimonthly calls and quarterly meetings, program staff managing the initiative were engaged in ongoing, layered analysis of emerging learning and key findings from the evaluation.
- Customizing reporting to evolving decision-making and communication needs. Success Measures developed numerous mechanisms to structure and communicate learning from the evaluation. These included informal reports (e.g. memos, presentations, and indicator and outcome measurement matrices) for quick, focused analyses that could be used for internal communications or to inform the short-term grantmaking cycle, as well as comprehensive annual reports which highlighted key milestones and achievements across the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit’s five years of grantmaking.
At the conclusion of the project, Success Measures developed a timeline of those grantee contributions that proved to have:
- Collectively informed national policy;
- Supported catalytic change at the regional level;
- Provided innovative models that scaled in reach or were replicated in other geographies.
The Metropolitan Opportunity Unit plans to share this summative report with its grantees, and other stakeholders engaged in similar efforts, to further advance regional equity nationwide.
About the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit
The Metropolitan Opportunity Unit was newly formed in late 2008 as part of the reorganization of the Ford Foundation’s Economic Opportunity and Assets program. Its focus was to support efforts that reached beyond individual neighborhoods and cities, the level at which traditional community development efforts were focused, to connect residents to opportunity and promote social equity inn broader metropolitan economies. For five years, beginning in 2009, the Metropolitan Opportunity Unit funded a body of nationally focused work and place-conscious efforts in ten metro areas (Atlanta, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, San Diego, the South Texas/Rio Grande Valley, and Twin Cities) through these three initiatives: Expanding Access to Quality Affordable Housing; Promoting Metropolitan Land Use Innovation; and Connecting People to Opportunity.