Because we in the social sector have been trained to believe that smart decisions thrive on evidence, it’s easy to assume that the act of gathering evidence will make the difference between a poor decision and a wise one. Yet one of the most striking and consistent findings from research with foundations, policymakers, and nonprofits is that even when evidence is available, it is rarely used. Why is it so hard to apply evaluation and research findings to philanthropic decisions? Why does evidence so often seem to generate more questions than answers? How can social sector leaders better bridge the disconnect between knowledge and action?
Past literature on the use of evidence in philanthropy has noted several barriers to its greater adoption, including a lack of time, technical training, and political motivation among the target users. But the gap is also the result of factors relating to organizational design, misconceptions about the role and value of data, and a failure to prioritize decision-relevant questions. In this feature article from Stanford Social Innovation Review's spring 2020 issue, Julia Coffman, Tanya Beer, and I outline these less frequently acknowledged reasons why evidence so often falls short of its potential, and detail five ideas to help social sector leaders use evidence more effectively.