Leading with Values: Evaluation

Leading with Values: Evaluation

Leading with Values: Evaluation

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The newest member of the HCF team, Gillian Knight, introduces herself and talks about her work to help establish an evaluation framework for the Foundation that is rooted in equity. 

My name is Gillian Knight and I am the new Program Associate at Healthy Communities Foundation. My role is to help shepherd the development of HCF’s impact evaluation framework. There was a very cute version of my intro story that I had written but, like with all things COVID-19, it is the time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.


I don’t have to tell you that COVID-19 has radically shifted the way that our world functions. While it unfortunately was no surprise to us, through our collective response to COVID-19 we have seen how health and social inequities are painfully being revealed within the many systems we live in—all in dire need of change.  

These racially inequitable systems have allowed for 70% of Chicago’s COVID-19 case fatalities to be from the Black community. These systems also result in the real-time erasure of undocumented and immigrant communities through the collection of inaccurate health data. Unfortunately, this exact data is necessary to addressing the very inequities revealed in this moment and long-term.

Despite the challenges that COVID-19 has created, the Healthy Communities Foundation has continued to champion the importance of leading with equity in grantmaking and this can be seen in our approach—from allocating most of our funding towards general operating support to our journey in establishing a community-informed evaluation framework. Now more than ever, we remain committed to focusing on long-term outcomes. We trust that our partners know how best to adapt their efforts to meet their communities’ health needs and, as a result, they are an important voice–if not the most important voice–in measuring the impact of our grantmaking. Evaluation can be a tool in the fight for change as it helps us get rooted in where we are and helps us envision where we can go.

Some might be thinking–Evaluation? Now? We are in a crisis. But it is an incredibly important part of transformational grantmaking.

Now more than ever, we must lean into our values to recover and rebuild healthy communities and systems. Evaluation is a necessary part of the process, so long as we do so in right relationship with community: with shared knowledge and values, shaping a future that acknowledges where we come from and how we need to proceed with reciprocity and equity in mind. 


“Our partners are an important voice–if not the most important voice–in measuring the impact of our grantmaking.”


Doing nothing now, especially during COVID-19, increases the risk of allowing inequities to perpetuate and to deepen the harm in our region. Using adequate evaluation strategies, we are invested in peeling back patterns of inequity to develop a path that will influence how we measure impact while centering our values and including the voice of those experiencing the greatest health disparities in our region. If we take anything from COVID-19, it is the importance of amplifying powerful, yet often underrepresented, community voices and stories and ensuring equity is central in the conversation.

Traditionally, the trend in philanthropy is to “evaluate effectiveness” and “measure outcomes.” Evaluation is often presented as a process that is without values, comprehensive and non-invasive to grantee partners and community members. I had an interesting experience with evaluation when I used to work at in an outdoor farm program that employed young people. One of the organization’s funding agencies sent an evaluator who, aside from not being prepared to be on a farm, “evaluated” my program from the street–approximately 50 yards away from where the farm was.

This in-person evaluation, along with an online survey, was going to play a role in whether this funder would support our work again.

The funder had determined what “success” looked like for the young people involved in this program–good attendance, the evaluator’s perception of youth engagement with program content and general demographic data of the program participants. It failed to capture the complex reason why a group of boys were consistently late to the program due to being stopped by the police along the way. It missed the reality of one young person being thrown out of their house, having to stay in the suburbs with family and not having a consistent ride to program. It did not measure a young person’s incredible change in confidence in public speaking over time. These young people had grown in a way that the funder’s forms, fields and spreadsheets could not capture.


“…evaluation is a way of documenting and sharing real stories of our communities.”


As a community-informed and community-embedded foundation focused on health equity, we place tremendous value on the community’s own vision of health to guide our funding of community work that will help achieve it. The development and implementation of our evaluation framework will hold all of us accountable to that vision. As someone who truly understands how much data and evaluation can and has harmed people, I am earnest to begin this process because I also believe that data and evaluation is a way of documenting and sharing real stories of our communities.

COVID-19 has radically shifted how we think about the quality life of residents in our region. Our approach moving forward is fueled by both the distressing and resilient stories we have heard directly from our grantee partners and community members. This is and will continue to be driven by the quality and purpose of the questions we ask. We hope our grantmaking process, including evaluation framework, will center the voices of the most impacted and erased, especially after we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within the word “evaluation” is the word “value”. We value transformation over transaction, and we intend for evaluation to not end at a report or a slide deck, but to be in service of transformation of systems and achieve the vision of truly healthy communities for all.

Gillian Knight

Gillian Knight, Program Associate


In her role, Gillian is helping establish an evaluation framework that is rooted in equity when measuring and discussing impact. After obtaining her Bachelor of Arts in Politics and Psychology from Lake Forest College, Gillian spent a decade working with Chicago’s young people in the issue areas of food sovereignty, housing, and health. She received a Master’s degree in Social Work and a Master’s degree in Public Health from University of Illinois at Chicago.

Originally from the Southwest, she brings the heat wherever she goes. You can find Gillian at the Healthy Communities Foundation office, her community garden plot, or walking around outside with a cup of coffee, ready to chit-chat.

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