Key Points

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland supports Catholic sisters and their ministries in northeast Ohio through the grantmaking, partnership, capacitybuilding, and evaluation efforts of its Catholic Sisters Program Area. The decline of sisters actively engaged in ministry, due both to their rising median age and a decades-long decline in their overall numbers, called for a reconsideration and likely revision of the CSPA existing theory of change.

Unlike other strategic approaches at the foundation, such as ending homelessness or improving health equity, transitioning from sister-led to lay-led leadership of ministries remained largely unexplored: Basic research was lacking, and model practices were simply not available. Therefore, CSPA staff engaged in a disciplined process to explore, measure, evaluate, and enhance its approach to supporting the legacy and current requirements of Catholic sisters within a rapidly changing environment.

This article presents findings and lessons learned from a three-part evaluation process designed to offer an inclusive, systems-based approach to evaluation by identifying outcomes critical to CSPA success and salient areas of evaluative inquiry designed to strengthen the program area; develop a framework of key elements of gospel-inspired service as modeled by sisters, rooted in stakeholder and community input; and employ the conceptual framework to develop measurement tools for sisters and lay partners for ongoing data collection to strengthen existing efforts and plan for the future.

Learnings from the systems-based evaluation process suggests and will inform a revision of CSPA’s theory of change, ensuring the foundation will continue to support and effectively promote the formation and activities of well-formed lay leaders and organizationally strong ministries to carry forward gospel-inspired service as modeled by sisters.

This article concludes by discussing how this three-part evaluative approach contributes to an expanded understanding of how philanthropic strategic initiatives can be assessed and effectively adapted by foundations experiencing generational or leadership transition or other changing contexts. While the work developed from the specific context of a faith-based foundation, there are several tools and approaches that may be considered or adapted more broadly within philanthropy.

Open Access