Applying Principles of Equity to a Foundation’s Learning and Evaluation Agenda

This blog is part of CSSP’s six-part #Evidence4Equity series, where we invite evaluators, researchers, and foundation leaders to elaborate further on some of the issues raised by the publication, Placing Equity Concerns at the Center of Knowledge Development, and to share their reflections on how they are intentionally focusing on equity in knowledge development.

Join us on the blog monthly for a new entry diving deeper into these issues and be sure to join the conversation online using #Evidence4Equity to keep the conversation going.

Applying principles of equity requires intentionality in aligning the full identities, histories, and lived experiences of diverse players with the equity values, culture, policies, and practices of their institutions.  As the architect of The California Endowment’s (TCE) learning and evaluation agenda, I am open about my identity, perspective, and experience as a political refugee and a woman of color. These attributes have played just as powerful of a role in shaping my philosophy and approach as have my formal training as an educational anthropologist and three decades of experience as an evaluator and researcher.  

Institutionally, The California Endowment has evolved over the course of its history and is getting clearer about its mission and values rooted in racial equity.  At its founding in 1996, TCE emphasized health improvement for all Californians through access to health care, services, and clinical settings. Almost a decade later, the foundation adopted a “grassroots-to-treetops” approach where communities drive impact through policy/systems change by influencing public and private sector decision makers.  Subsequently, in 2010, TCE launched Building Healthy Communities(BHC), a 10- year, $1 billion comprehensive community initiative launched by The California Endowment to advance state-wide policy, change the narrative, and transform California’s communities devastated by health inequities into places where all people and neighborhoods thrive.

Through rapid cycles of learning in partnership with community partners, at the midpoint in 2015, the Foundation determined that in order for our investments to have a lasting effect to achieve health equity, “power building” is not only a means, but also an end in itself.  Within our theory of change, “building people power and ensuring that historically excluded adults and youth have power, agency, and voice in public and private decision-making to advance health equity” is our North Star.  It is, we believe, the essential ingredient in influencing policy and creating deep systems transformation, which leads to improved opportunity environment that results to long-term population health status improvement.  Currently, TCE’s theory of change is simply known as “ABC.” That is, 

Agency + Belonging = Changed Conditions for Health




  • A = AGENCY 
    • Agency is the ability to exert voice and power in community leaders.  If equity is the goal, we have to address power differentials and build social, political and economic power in a critical mass of residents. 
    • The dominant narrative is one of exclusion.  We have to create with community partners, a strong narrative of inclusion and address trauma and healing.  While inclusion provides for a shared sense of purpose in community, the narrative of exclusion intentionally dehumanizes targets and exaggerates the notion of scarcity, positing a zero-sum competition for resources between groups and looks to the past with nostalgia and to the future with fear.
    • Changing the conditions is not about beating the odds, but changing the odds.  Too often the media describes the exceptions that beat the odds and gained admission to a top tier university.  However, BHC’s work is to change the odds by creating opportunity structures are critical in the lives of all young people of color particularly schools.  Health inequities are structurally and systematically manufactured by the conditions that families and communities struggle against.


Inasmuch as Building Healthy Communities is focused on power building, it has also set the ideal stage for exploring how to center our evaluative practice to advance equity.  From the beginning, BHC has promoted a different type of relationship among funder, evaluator, and community. Since 2018, the TCE Learning and Evaluation team, which consists of 87% women of color with a strong commitment to racial equity, have begun to examine how to apply principles of equitable evaluation to be in service of equity, to answer critical questions about the ways in which historical and structural decisions have contributed to the condition to be addressed, and to orient our evaluation efforts toward participant ownership.  This has taken many forms through our commitment to co-design with our key BHC partners, our investment in building learning, evaluation, and storytelling capacity in those closest to the communities with people most impacted by inequities, and our attention to community contexts and addressing questions that get at the underlying drivers of inequality.

We recognize that applying principles of equity to TCE’s learning and evaluation agenda cannot happen in a vacuum.  TCE has been on a multi-decade journey to undo structural racialization.  Since 2008, TCE has conducted four formal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Organizational Audits and has worked to build staff’s understanding and application of equity and inclusion in its programs and policies.  In efforts to take our commitment to a higher level, in 2018, the Board of Directors made a formal and explicit resolution to make racial equity explicit in all facets of our work going forward, and hold ourselves accountable to outcomes at all levels of the organization, including:

  • 100% of Board & Staff will have an improved understanding of the historical role that structural racism has played as a barrier to health and well-being, and how the adoption of a racial equity lens will strengthen our ability to attain TCE’s mission of “Health for All”.
  • 100% of TCE’s policies and practices will be reviewed, and strengthened, as needed, to advance racial equity across the organization.
  • Demonstrated improvement that TCE’s culture is advancing and operationalizing a broad practice of racial equity – organizationally through a greater emphasis on relational healing, belonging, and collaborative practice internally; and externally with grantees, partners, stakeholders—in our communications, strategy, policy and systems-change work.

The Learning and Evaluation department has an important role to play in achieving these outcomes and has committed to a team-based inquiry to increase our team’s capacity to align the personal with the institutional through: (1) examining the history of evaluation, how it has historically marginalized communities, and the improvement opportunities that lie ahead; (2) deepening our shared understanding of how to use an equitable evaluation lens, and (3) applying Equitable Evaluation principles to our current efforts.  Despite these many multi-pronged efforts, our work to apply principles of equity has barely begun. However, our commitment to being intentional requires us to slow down, check ourselves and the role we play to be in service of and contributing to equity. We will know whether we are on the right track when our community partners tell us so.