The Pew Charitable Trusts is guided by principles informed by our founders and our board: be entrepreneurial, rely on the best available information to make decisions, take calculated risks when circumstances warrant, and focus on results that serve the public good. In 1988, Pew first established an internal evaluation unit, which was the precursor to today’s Planning and Evaluation department. Our charge in Planning and Evaluation—to inform decisions, strengthen Pew’s initiatives, and generate knowledge that helps Pew’s programs achieve their objectives—derives from and is informed by these core institutional values.
Joseph N. Pew Jr., one of our organization’s founders, once observed that “America is searching for a better life, not an easier life.” As our program colleagues can attest, the easiest and most immediate remedy to a problem is rarely the one that leads to lasting improvements in people’s lives. Rather, effective solutions are the result of painstaking research and analysis, informed by the lessons of the past and guided by pragmatic assessments of what can and cannot be achieved. Part of Planning and Evaluation’s responsibility is to ensure that the organization is well aware of the outcomes of previous attempts—including Pew’s—to address a public problem and that this knowledge is reflected in future efforts. We also serve as a critical resource for program staff, providing an objective review of new program designs. An example will help illustrate how we apply planning and evaluation to improve program effectiveness and promote learning.
The Pew Environment Group’s efforts to protect public lands started in 1992. Through regular conversations with staff, we learned that the wilderness protection team was preparing a new strategy. We met several times with our colleagues to discuss how we could inform their efforts. In response, we undertook two distinct but complementary efforts. We first began an evaluation of Pew’s wilderness protection activities in the United States. At the same time, a separate team in our unit provided an independent planning perspective to the environment staff developing a new strategy.
Why does Pew evaluate its programs? The answer to this question is a natural outgrowth of the organization’s overall approach to its mission: set specific and measurable objectives for initiatives and then regularly gauge the progress in meeting them. Evaluation encourages us to apply the same thoroughness and objectivity in reviewing programs in the field as Pew’s leadership does when deciding how to most effectively deploy the organization’s resources. It provides a reality check on claims of achievements and grounds program objectives with an understanding that they will one day be independently evaluated.
But at Pew, evaluation goes beyond accountability. It is a powerful tool that enables us to learn, adapt and improve. We use evaluation not only to measure our progress, but also to inform decisions about how to respond to changes in the field and to seize emerging opportunities. Evaluation is about asking the right questions, doing the hard work of getting informed and unbiased answers to these questions and putting the lessons learned to good use.
That was the approach we took in evaluating Pew’s wilderness protection efforts. We began by meeting with the environment staff to ensure that we understood the full history of their work and what they most wanted to learn from an evaluation. We then recruited an external team of experts to conduct the assessment. The objective perspective provided by independent evaluators helps ensure that we receive the critical findings that are vital to assessing the effectiveness of Pew’s initiatives and bettering our efforts.
The evaluation complemented a planning effort by Planning and Evaluation with Pew’s environment group. While developing and running effective programs is the primary responsibility of the program staff, Planning and Evaluation provides specialized skills that contribute to disciplined and iterative problem solving on planning issues: asking the tough questions, but also working as a partner to find the answers. We help program staff explore and test their ideas, and then turn the best ideas into effective action.
Our work with Pew’s wilderness protection campaign resulted in a stronger strategy for the future that perfectly illustrated our department’s mission: provide thoughtful guidance and critique on initial program design, objective measurement of progress against milestones, lessons that can improve Pew’s work, and assessment of the organization’s ultimate return on investment
Pursuing this mission is not easy for us or our program colleagues. It requires the drive to hold ourselves accountable and the discipline to embrace our strengths and acknowledge our shortcomings. But in keeping with Joseph N. Pew Jr.’s noteworthy observation, we believe that our work in planning and evaluation is essential if we are, in fact, to better our efforts to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.
Lester W. Baxter
Director, Planning and Evaluation
Read more about Pew's work in Pew Prospectus 2011 (PDF).