Blue Marble Evaluation: Thinking in transformational ways at a time when we urgently need to

By Jane Maland Cady, Program Director, International – McKnight Foundation


Summary: The McKnight Foundation has supported the first of the Blue Marble Evaluation innovators — from Michael Quinn Patton and the World Savvy team, to the evaluators embedded in the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and the Collaborative Crop Research Program. This initial Blue Marble Cohort has learned from each other, challenged each other, and is actively providing critical tools and frameworks for the field. Writing on the day of the launch of Blue Marble Evaluation: Premises and Principles in Minneapolis, Jane Maland Cady, Program Director, International – McKnight Foundation, explains that the work has only begun and why it’s important to use this approach to evaluation to address the critical challenges facing our one and only planet.

We have one planet.

jane maland cadyThis one planet faces serious challenges, most of those driven by the people that live on it. From climate change to forced immigration to political divides to surpassing planetary boundaries, the time is now for all of us to do something about this one and only planet.

Blue Marble Evaluation provides us with a framework to address the unprecedented and critical challenges affecting us all. Built on four overarching principles and 12 operating principles, one of these guiding lights says that we must “know and face the realities of the Anthropocene and act accordingly.” The principle recognizes the fact that we all have this responsibility to work together to fix what we contributed to destroying.

Evaluation is not exempt from this reality.

A handful of years ago at the American Evaluation Association Annual Conference, I attended a session where Michael Quinn Patton talked about the idea of how the evaluation profession and those they work with need new tools to understand the world in which we live. This immediately resonated with me. I have worked in the area of evaluation and research for the past 25 years as either an evaluator/researcher or a funder of such. Over these years, I have learned that the questions we ask influence what we see and how we interact with the world. They shape what we measure. In turn, what we measure and the questions we ask influence how we understand challenges and opportunities.

Solving the food security issues that we face today requires that we think about the overlap and complexity of the system that we are trying to shift. While formative and summative evaluation approaches are helpful to understand specific parts of the system, they are limited in understanding the interactions of the systems. Blue Marble Evaluation has stepped into this void.

Today, the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP) funds participatory research focused on ecological solutions for farmers and their families. We recognize that work on the ground matters for the farmers, while the research output can be used by others to understand and recognize the importance and impact of engaging in local action and people’s priorities. (Claire Nicklin’s blog provides a useful example, here.) Indeed, at the core of CCRP is the idea of the ongoing exchange of information at local, program, regional and global scales.

Taking a place-based focus is central to our work no matter where it is in the world, whether that’s here at home in Minnesota, or in the Andes as with CCRP. We all have much to learn from each other and so we use the symbol of the infinity loop to illustrate – and celebrate – the constant flow of information. This perspective chimes powerfully with Blue Marble Evaluation’s Operating Principle 2 – “GLOCAL” – which elevates the importance of interconnections and endorses the critical nature of these interactions to the transformation process.

The CCRP’s Theory of Change (TOC) also clearly incorporates transformational concepts at a global scale and shows us how those are anchored to local processes. Again, the infinity symbol at the center of the current ToC illustrates how global efforts also benefit from local learning and knowledge. It is important that the global not be seen as just extractive, or in a “scaling-up” relation to the local, but rather in a symbiotic relationship. This approach has also allowed the CCRP to be more intentional in its grant-making and grantee support.

At its core, Blue Marble is about being useful and being used. It is both adaptive and developmental. And, crucially, by being principles based, it encourages and enables us to think in transformational ways at a time when we need to think in unprecedented ways. Now, as philanthropies seek to address grand challenges – climate change, equity, healthy cities, food security, to name a few – Blue Marble Evaluation provides us with an important way of thinking, doing and being.

Over my career and personal life, I have been dedicated to building healthy and vibrant food systems, pushing for the kinds of farm practices and food systems that regenerate healthy communities, environments and economies in the United States and in countries in Africa and Latin America. Blue Marble Evaluation is the next chapter in this work.