Evidence-Based Grantmaking: Funding Better Results in Federal Programs

Results for America
4 min readSep 30, 2021

2020 Invest in What Works Federal Standard of Excellence

Solving the urgent and complex challenges that are before the government today requires making investment decisions with the best information available. Using funds to build evidence grows the pool of good information. Using evidence of effectiveness as a criteria for allocating funds for competitive grant programs, often called evidence-based grantmaking, can direct public investments to programs with the proven ability to deliver positive results for residents and communities.

These practices are outlined in the White House Office of Management and Budgeting (OMB) June 2021 Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act guidance. It reiterates and encourages agencies to leverage their grants to scale and invest in evidence-based practice, along with activities that support that continue to build the base of evidence, such as learning agendas and annual evaluation plans.

Results for America’s Invest in What Works Federal Standards of Excellence (Federal Standard of Excellence) identifies agencies’ evidence-based grants within the five largest competitive and non-competitive grant programs and the strategies they used to guide investments towards evidence.

  • Did the agency use evidence of effectiveness to allocate funds in its five largest competitive and non-competitive grant programs?
  • Did the agency use its five largest competitive and non-competitive grant programs to build evidence?
  • Did the agency use evidence of effectiveness to allocate funds in any other competitive and non-competitive grant programs (besides its five largest grant programs)?
  • What are the agency’s strongest examples of how competitive and noncompetitive grant recipients achieved better outcomes and built knowledge of what works or what does not?
  • Did the agency provide guidance which makes clear that city, county, and state government, and/or other grantees can or should use the funds they receive from these programs to conduct program evaluations and/or to strengthen their evaluation capacity-building efforts?

Results for America has identified a number of effective strategies that federal agencies (and other governments) have used to integrate evidence in their grantmaking. Broadly these strategies focus on the following concepts:

Define and Prioritize Evidence
Agencies have effectively used common evidence definitions in their grantmaking criteria to identify which programs have strong, promising, or little evidence of effectiveness. And federal investments should scale practices from little evidence to the stronger levels, when possible. Additionally, agencies should provide grantees with information about evidence-based policies, practices, and programs through evidence clearinghouses.

Fund Evidence-Based Practices
Agencies have required the use of evidence-based practices for potential grantees by awarding preference points based on effective past performances or evidence supporting effectiveness.

Incentivize Evidence-Building Activities
Agencies have authorized a percentage of funds or direct grantees to set aside a portion of funds for evaluations to build evidence. Furthermore, agencies can require grantees to participate in national evaluations upon request as conditions of the grant.

AmeriCorps
AmeriCorpsState and National Grant Program is a leading example of evidence-based grantmaking. In the grant application and scoring criteria, up to 44 out of 100 points can be awarded to organizations that submit applications supported by performance and evaluation data. Programs with stronger levels of evidence earn more points, whereas grantees with preliminary evidence do not score as high. Using this strategy, AmeriCorps has successfully invested a greater share of its competitive grant in programs with strong or moderate evidence since FY16. The result of this evidence-based grantmaking strategy, AmeriCorps has helped scale effective programs such as the Minnesota Reading Corps, which showed positive impacts Kindergarten through third grade students’ literacy outcomes.

Percentage of AmeriCorps State and Nation Competitive Funding Awarded to Projects with Moderate or Strong Level of Evidence

U.S. Department of Education
The U.S. Department of Education (ED) also has a strong record of using evidence in grantmaking. Over half (52%) of the agency’s 2020 grant competitions used evidence as part of the agency’s efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) investments. In achieving this, ED has issued extensive guidance to support state and local education agencies throughout the grant application process. This includes identifying local needs, selecting and implementing evidence-based interventions, and evaluating the impact of these interventions. By shifting the grant competition process to prioritize evidence, state and local education agencies have incorporated more evidence-based practices into their programming and enter a cycle of continuous improvement.

Through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Education Department General Administrative Regulations, ED uses four tiers of evidence (strong, moderate, promising, and “demonstrates a rationale”) to award grant dollars and help grantees identify interventions best suited for their needs. Grantees have access to ED’s robust What Works Clearinghouse, where they can use a searchable database of studies and find detailed practice guides that highlight and synthesize the results, making the implementation process for evidence-based interventions less burdensome for grantees. Through these practices, ED is shifting more dollars towards proven programs, increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the agency’s investments.

Evidence-based grantmaking is where the rubber meets the road in government spending. Through evidence-based grantmaking strategies, the federal government can leverage evidence to achieve better outcomes and results. However, it is critical that congress play a critical role in ensuring that evidence-based grantmaking strategies are permissible activities in federal spending, including for mandatory and non-competitive grant programs. And while legislative proposals may include evidence-based grant programs, such as the $9 billion dollars for college completion grant that would allow higher education institutions to invest in evidence-based programs such as the CUNY ASAP, evidence-based grantmaking should be the norm so that the federal government allocates its resources in a results-oriented focus.

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Results for America

Working with decision-makers at all levels of government to harness the power of evidence and data to solve the world’s greatest challenges.