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Key Points

Editor’s Note: This article, first published in print and online in 2014, has been revised for The Foundation Review with substantive additions, new examples, and minor updates.

Goal-free evaluation is a model in which official or stated program goals and objectives are unknown by the evaluator, serving as a counter to assessing impact solely according to goal achievement. Foundation-supported program evaluation, however, has historically focused on goal attainment as intuitively and inextricably linked to evaluation.

This focus has persisted despite the fact that goal-free product evaluations have been a norm for more than 75 years. Yet persuading funders to consider GFE requires the evaluator to overcome two ubiquitous misconceptions: that GFE is simply a clever rhetorical tool, and that it lacks a useable methodology.

Hence, the purpose of this article is not to advocate for the use of GFE per se, but rather to introduce it to the philanthropic community, present the facts of GFE use in program evaluation, and describe aspects of GFE methodology. These — along with sharing such potential benefits as controlling goal orientation-related biases, avoiding the rhetoric of “true” goals, adapting to contextual changes, and aligning goals with actual outcomes — demonstrate that goal-free evaluation is a perspective that belongs in a grantmaker’s toolbox.

Open Access