July 27, 2022

Listening, Learning and Lizzo: Aligning Our Strategy in Service to Justice

An arm extends to a wall of sticky notes with lightbulbs drawn on each of them

Meyer recently engaged in a strategic planning process that led to a number of changes in our grantmaking process and the values we hold at the center of our work. As part of this effort, Meyer is working with CEI to design and build a learning and evaluation practice within Meyer. This is the latest in a series of conversations about Meyer’s developing strategy.

Last month, Kaberi Banerjee Murthy, Meyer’s chief impact officer, spoke with Chera Reid, Ph.D., co-executive director of the Center for Evaluation Innovation, about the foundation’s focus on learning and listening, how traditional evaluation in the philanthropic sector has created and maintained an unjust status quo, and ways in which a new approach to measuring impact and gathering feedback can help build equity and shift power. They also talked about Lizzo.

Below is a transcript of their chat, which has been edited for length and clarity.

 

Dr. Chera Reid, Center for Evaluation Innovation: For over a decade, Meyer has defined itself as an equity-centered organization. You recently named a move from equity to justice as your guiding frame. What does this look like in practice? 

Kaberi Banerjee Murthy, Meyer Memorial Trust: Fundamentally, given all the challenges inherent in philanthropy — namely, the ways in which it was created by and still rewards unaccountable systems of great inequality — if we're not actively and deliberately moving toward justice, we're only trying to slightly improve conditions within a fundamentally broken system. We need to be working with partners and communities to reimagine and create a new way of being. Otherwise, we’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. To move toward justice, it’s been important for us to think about our active stance — to be anti-racist, to center gender and reproductive justice, to heed BIPOC wisdom — as opposed to believing we can get there via a passive stance. We are working to get into deep alignment internally with our mission and values. 

Chera: What are you learning as you practice anti-racist behaviors as a justice-centered organization? 

Kaberi: First, I should begin by clarifying that we are still aspiring to become a justice foundation. We know that by stating our intent, we won’t magically become one overnight. It’s a process, for sure. But we’re also very aware of how incrementalism can be the enemy of substantive impact, so we are committed to ensuring something meaningful emerges from every step we take. It will be through our everyday choice points that we are practicing how we live our mission. 

And it’s a learning journey in all the things that we will get wrong along the way. We are learning to be transparent and honest about that. 

One of the things I was thinking about last month was how Lizzo responded to being called out for using ableist language in her new song “Grrrls.” She was called into the difference between intent and impact. She didn’t use her intent as an excuse, but acknowledged her lack of awareness in using an offensive term. Her apology was not only about the words but also about action and transformation. The artist not only apologized but also re-recorded the track with new lyrics. At one of our recent Impact team meetings at Meyer, we talked about how Lizzo’s mature and thoughtful reaction is an example of modeling learning for accountability. 

This accountability can happen at the organizational level but also in ourselves. For instance, I know and acknowledge that I’ve personally made mistakes, specifically by internalizing pressures and moving too fast. With feedback from my co-workers and reflecting on one of Dr. Shawn Ginwright’s Four Pivots, I realized that I was more hustle than flow. As individuals, and as an institution, what we can say is, “We will not get this perfect right away. We will make mistakes.” And what we can offer is a genuine desire to be in a listening and learning stance and not shy away from saying, “We got this wrong. We learned something. We listened to the feedback we received. And here’s how we pivoted or changed as a result.” 

One of our key indicators about learning for accountability has to become how we respond to feedback, how we meet moments for transformation. Not being afraid to say “mea culpa” because that allows us to have a growth mindset. It’s not about trying to avoid risk or avoid mistakes; it’s about taking away the standard of perfectionism, which itself can be a symptom of white supremacy culture. We are learning to be brave enough to lean into our mistakes so that we can change. 

Chera: I love the Lizzo example and want to go back to the accountability question. What’s on the horizon for how Meyer intends to learn with its partners? 

Kaberi: When I started at Meyer, the institution collected a ton of data through the Meyer Outcome Reporting Charts (otherwise known as MORCs), and our team read every single evaluation report. We were taking in so much information, but we didn’t have a system for making collective meaning of the data coming in. So that’s one piece: We are moving from episodic or annual engagement to building our own internal muscle to have more meaningful feedback loops. That’s why we’re creating a new role here at Meyer — Director of Learning — and we’ll be posting a job description and accepting applications for that soon. To all those reading this: If bringing innovative approaches to evaluation is your thing, please consider connecting with us. This position will also have the opportunity to build a team, so that’s an exciting part of all of this, having the resources and capacity to get this right.

And the second piece is about making sure evaluation isn’t just in service to Meyer alone. Instead, we are working toward being able to speak to what we’re collectively learning — nonprofit leaders, our staff, our trustees — about how to partner and seek the change we want. We will be in conversation with community to ensure their feedback and wisdom informs our strategy framework, including our priorities and outcomes. We will say: Here’s where we’ve come to, how does this land, what are our blind spots, what did we miss?  

Specifically, we’re using the three questions from the Trust-Based Learning and Evaluation Framework to guide our learning approach. As we “Learn for Accountability,” we’re asking how  Meyer can continue building a foundation and practice of trust-based philanthropy, participatory grantmaking and intentional community relationships in alignment with our anti-racist, feminist values. As we “Learn for Decision-Making,” we’re asking how we are supporting our nonprofit partners in meeting their goals and adapting our processes to meet our partners’ changing needs. And as we “Learn for Long-Term Impact,” we’re asking if our funding is moving the meter on racial, social and economic justice for the collective well-being of Oregon’s lands and peoples.

Now, Chera, you’ve actually done this very thing in your previous role at Kresge. So I have a question for you. As you think about the future, what are your thoughts on how evaluation and learning benefits grantees? Both of us have been in philanthropy for a bit, and so much of what I’ve seen was around attribution – what did this one grant “buy” – instead of contribution – how did a grant help support work as part of an ecosystem of partners.

Chera: I really appreciate that question, Kaberi. In terms of evaluation, if you will, I grew up in the attribution world, too. If what you learn necessarily is meant to influence federal spending, which certain program evaluation often was designed to do, it has a place. 

The way most foundations operate, that’s just not what you do. In philanthropy, we can think both short and long term about change and how change happens. Much of philanthropy works in place and is across complex systems. Social change is far from linear. 

Plus, because philanthropy has this protected tax status, it has a bit of financial accountability, but it is not held to any particular standard when it comes to formalizing how we understand impact or to whom we’re accountable. Philanthropy must be motivated to shift accountability, for instance, the way you’re speaking about Meyer’s motivation being the pursuit of justice. Anti-racist practice is necessary, including in evaluative approach. Then philanthropy can share accountability with its nonprofit partners. Because transforming toward justice is for us all. 

Kaberi: Can you say more about that?

Chera: One of the things that's unfortunate is that in the professionalization of evaluation, we’ve created an industry that has many of us, and I say this as a person who does a lot of consulting, inside a business model where many are dependent on selling a product called “evaluation.” At the end of the day, what we all want is learning, which isn’t something to possess. We want our learning to be data rich, robust with context and examples from practice. Learning is a capability that is in all of us. We’ve formalized it in such a way that it can lead us to forget that we actually know something about learning. 

What energizes me about CEI’s partnership with Meyer is that we are starting from an intent to embody anti-racist practice. We are thinking together about multiple ways of knowing, [and about] how we will understand Meyer’s contribution to a larger system of change around dimensions of justice. Moving away from possession and toward shared learning is key. We will have more robust evaluative thinking — we will get clearer and learn more — with this approach. 

Kaberi: And we will be open and vulnerable about the missteps we make along the way, to go back to our Lizzo example. I’m grateful that philanthropic spaces are in the process of shifting. We can and need to be honest and transparent about our journey. 

At Meyer, we’re excited about the new Director of Learning and Evaluation role. It’s a long time coming and will really expand our ability to make good on what we know we need to do to better serve our community.

Chera: Yes, it’s a big job. One thing that I came to see early on in my time as the inaugural director of strategic learning, research and evaluation at The Kresge Foundation is that the job isn’t about possession, about being the holder of learning. It’s more about how we give it away, that is, stewarding so that learning is shared. 

I’m thinking about a few of the enduring lessons I learned going through this same process at Kresge:

First, the work is about both learning and unlearning. This is about being curious about the assumptions and mindsets that are in our work and that are invisible until we make them visible. The Equitable Evaluation Framework™ uses the language of orthodoxies, for instance, to help us unsettle often unspoken assumptions that govern our efforts. 

The second lesson and enduring anchor is about experts and expertise: We are experts in equal measure. This goes to inviting multiple ways of knowing, and trusting lived experience as a teacher. Together, the Trust-Based Philanthropy project and CEI have begun naming what we see as the emergence of a trust-based approach to learning and evaluation practice — aspects of which you’ve already mentioned, Kaberi.

Third, learning is for everyone. When we bring an equity or justice lens to our work, learning isn’t a “nice to do” but a “must do.” All heads, hearts and hands are on deck. At Kresge, for example, you will see that in 2019, the foundation adopted equity as its sixth value. This move reflects years of learning across the organization, and it exemplifies the kind of openness to be moved that we all must hold as possible. 

Kaberi:  Thanks, Chera, for all of this. It’s great to be in partnership with CEI around this and move from the ways evaluation has been done in philanthropy in the past to shift into a new way of partnering and learning with community.