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Evidence: Taking the Guesswork Out of Grantmaking

7 March 2019 at 8:10 am
Philanthropy and corporate giving can learn from the way policymakers are incorporating objective evidence of “what works” in their policy decisions, write Robyn Mildon, Natasha Morris and Sarah Hollingworth from The Centre for Evidence and Implementation.

Contributor | 7 March 2019 at 8:10 am


Evidence: Taking the Guesswork Out of Grantmaking
7 March 2019 at 8:10 am

Philanthropy and corporate giving can learn from the way policymakers are incorporating objective evidence of “what works” in their policy decisions, write Robyn Mildon, Natasha Morris and Sarah Hollingworth from The Centre for Evidence and Implementation.

The concept of using evidence to help inform policy decision making is not new in Australia.

A decade ago, the Australian Productivity Commission hosted its 2009 annual roundtable Strengthening Evidence-based Policy in the Australian Federation. The use of evidence has changed the way governments think about problems – and problem solving – from the “What Works” movement in the UK, to the use of evidence clearinghouses in the US and many more discrete examples globally.  

Just as objective evidence of “what works” has a place in informing policy, it is also a relevant consideration when making philanthropic and corporate grant-making decisions. With myriad social programs having minimal impact, many funders would be horrified to learn their investments have no real benefit – or are making the situation worse.

Take, for example, Scared Straight, a 1970’s US intervention for juvenile delinquents or children at risk of becoming delinquent. The goal of the program, which involves organised visits to prison facilities and interaction with adult inmates, is to deter participants from future offending.

A television documentary on the program, which aired in 1979, showed that 16 of the 17 delinquents remained law-abiding for three months after attending Scared Straight – a 94 per cent success rate. The program received much media attention and was replicated in over 30 jurisdictions nationwide.

Scared Straight ticked all the ideological boxes – tough on crime, inexpensive to run, a way for current offenders to productively contribute to society – and it was deemed worthy of further investment. Yet, once the program was subjected to well-designed trials and evaluations, using transparent and rigorous methods (including nine randomised field trials), the resulting systematic reviews found not only did the program not work; it actually did more harm than good.

As Caroline Fiennes, director of Giving Evidence and a keynote speaker at last year’s Global Evidence and Implementation Summit, co-hosted by the Centre for Evidence and Implementation, notes: “Good intentions alone are not enough.”

A better outcome for beneficiaries is, of course, the prime objective. But, without using robust evidence to help make strategic investments, it can be a guessing game.

The upfront use of evidence can vastly increase a funder’s impact by informing: what’s the problem and why it exists; what strategies and interventions are likely to be most effective at solving it; where funding will make the most difference; which organisations to fund and how best to fund them.

Once these questions are answered, it is also critical the evidence is used effectively. Just because a program has been shown to work in a trial setting, it doesn’t mean it automatically works on the ground. The implementation of a program requires effort and support – and funders can play a critical role in ensuring grantees have the necessary implementation support to successfully use the evidence of “what works” in practice.

Funders are also in a unique position to contribute to growing the evidence base and enabling scaling of successful interventions, through evaluating what is being achieved. The potential for collaboration and information sharing among the funding community increases the scope of this opportunity enormously.

Australia can look overseas for some inspiration. Globally, not only is evidence-informed giving gaining traction, but some philanthropic foundations are leading the way with innovation in decision-making. Arnold Ventures, a US-based philanthropic foundation, funds rigorous research and evaluation to identify programs and policies that create systemic social change. Bloomberg Philanthropies, also based in the US, publicly commits to using data and evidence to improve decision making.

Evidence-informed giving is yet to be widely practised in Australia, but it’s high time we got the movement going. Organisations that effectively use robust evidence will have a significant advantage in terms of their cost efficiency and credibility.

If philanthropic and corporate grants are going to solve social problems, and improve people’s lives on a large scale, evidence must be part of the inputs that inform their choices. But, for funders to be armed with this information, we need to ensure that decision makers can access, understand and use the evidence to implement what works – and, just as importantly, what doesn’t.

About the authors: Robyn Mildon PhD is the founding executive director of the Centre for Evidence and Implementation. She is an internationally recognised leader with a long-standing career focused on the use and implementation of evidence to achieve social impact for children, families and communities. She has led several national initiatives aimed at improving the selection, and use, of evidence in real-world service and policy settings.

Natasha Morris is the director of social business and philanthropy with Centre for Evidence and Implementation. Natasha works with the social business and corporate and philanthropic sectors to increase their effective use and implementation of evidence. Natasha has worked in social impact for nearly 10 years, with broad experience across impact investing, venture philanthropy, policy, strategy and projects in the for-purpose sector.

Sarah Hollingworth is a multi-disciplinary communications consultant with 20 years’ experience working in the profit and not-for-profit sectors. Over the past six years Sarah’s area of focus has been working with organisations that aim to solve social problems for vulnerable and disadvantaged children, families and their communities.

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