Getting Inside the Story

Ethnographic Approaches to Evaluation


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To get insight into a complex community, problem or process of change, sometimes you need to look beyond conventional research or evaluation methods. Ethnography is a powerful way to step inside the culture of an organization or community, hear ongoing feedback from multiple points of view, and understand a program's real impact. In this guide, learn about ethnography's benefits and pitfalls, and see how grantmakers use the method to document, evaluate and improve approaches to youth engagement, HIV education and neighborhood policing.

  • Understanding ethnography's pros and cons
  • Generating lessons quickly and continuously
  • Telling a more authentic institutional or community story
  • Stimulating reflection on the front lines

As grantmakers, we want evaluation and assessment techniques that help document and analyze the work we support in ways that are meaningful to our foundations, grantees, and wider field or community. To help grantmakers weigh the advantages of different approaches, GrantCraft offers Evaluation Techniques: A Series of Brief Guides. Each guide explains the basics of one technique, answers common questions about its use, describes how some grantmakers are applying it and includes a list of resources for readers who want to learn more.


"Our ethnographer was getting at group relations, leadership development, things that we realized were really important. And one big surprise was that she helped us understand our own funder dynamics as well as the dynamics in the community."

— Director of a funder collaborative, on the advantages
of adding ethnography to quantitative research

"You can develop a detailed and contextual understanding of what a community looks like and the complexities of its relationships. Ethnography is a wonderful way of getting at that."

— Grantmaker who uses ethnography to
study rural economic development

"The ethnographer challenged me at every point...What did I see is not working, what was I walking into, what was I proposing? You know, just very basic questions in some ways, but things that allowed me to think out loud, and also things I hadn't even thought about."

— An organization's director of programs,
looking to try new approaches

"It's a tricky thing. You can't tell an ethnographer, 'Okay, I want you to do it this way,' because the product comes out of the process. You have to enter understanding that you may be surprised by the product. At the same time, the ethnographers have to understand that you may need the product for a certain thing and they have to take that into consideration. That has to be negotiated very clearly."

— Consultant who has helped many organizations
select ethnographers