Overall Evaluation 2019/20

An overall evaluation of the Volkswagen Foundation’s activities took place in the period from May 2019 to June 2020. This was the second time we have taken such a step. The following contains an outline of the core recommendations of the evaluation report and the consequences subsequently drawn. There is also a brief description of how the evaluation was prepared and implemented. 

The Foundation views this summary presentation as a contribution to institutional transparency. It would like to see its own example encourage other funding organizations to make use of evaluations for reflection and further development.

Aim of the Evaluation

The aim of the overall evaluation was to obtain a well-founded expert opinion on the overarching aspects of the Foundation's strategic activities, i.e. on questions such as: 

  • the positioning of the Foundation as a private funding organization with a claim to play a forerunner role,
  • the portfolio and processing design of general funding as well as Niedersächsisches Vorab , and
  • internal governance and organization.

In addition, the evaluation panel was asked to provide notes and recommendations concerning the Foundation’s strategy going forward. This was specifically oriented to the future challenges confronting the science system and society.

Results and findings of the overall evaluation 

"The Volkswagen Foundation has earned a strong reputation for science and research funding on both national and international levels. It stands for professionalism and quality and should in future continue to play its pioneering role as an innovative private science funding foundation, demonstrate flexibility in its funding and engage itself across disciplines and borders. The Foundation as a whole, and in particular its long-time Secretary General, Dr. Wilhelm Krull, are an outstanding role model for science funding and the foundation system."
[Executive Summary of the Overall Evaluation Report.]

In consideration of the Foundation’s purpose, i.e. to promote science and technology in research and education, the panel recommends to:

  • further develop the strength as a transdisciplinary source of inspiration for unusual and courageous processes, structures and topics,
  • focus its funding portfolio and strategically realign it for the future,
  • systematically broaden the definition, measurement and assessment of the impact of its funding activities,
  • further strengthen its activities as an independent forum and intermediary for discourses in research, research funding and science policy, 
  • expand its engagement at the interface between science and society, and
  • make its internal activities participatory, digital, and agile, and to enable organizational learning through a shared culture of leadership and responsibility.

With regard to Niedersächsisches Vorab as a central funding instrument for universities and science in Lower Saxony, the panel recommends its further development as a focused strategic instrument of funding aimed at mostly long-term projects and oriented toward the highest scientific quality.

Use of the evaluation results

An intensive exchange took place between the members of the panel and foundation staff from the very beginning of the evaluation process, so that the panel's findings and considerations were continuously fed into the internal strategy discussion. 

Funding activities and impact orientation

In December 2020, the Board of Trustees approved the framework for the Foundation’s new funding strategy, which defines the profile areas "Social Transformations," "Understanding Research – Evaluation and Science Practice" and "Exploration" as central pillars. The goal is to align the Foundation’s funding activities toward the creation of impetus, a willingness to take risks, cementing a cross-border approach, and shaping structures. The specific design of these profile areas is a task for 2021.

Starting in February 2021, the Foundation will also begin developing an overarching concept for the impact orientation of its funding activities. In preparation for this, in June 2020 the Foundation began a systematic analysis of the collection and use of its funding data.

Events and communication

The Foundation will continue to strengthen its role as an independent intermediary and fulfill its commitment to act as a forum for debate on science policy at the interface between science and society. 

To strengthen science communication, the funding initiative "Science Communication Cubed – Science of Science Communication Centers" was launched, whose first pre-selection review meeting took place in January 2021.

In the future, events are to be linked even more closely with funding activities and used as spaces for creative ideas and exploration. Changing mobility behavior and digital possibilities will be the drivers for the development of hybrid event formats. 

In the area of external communication, presence, and interaction on suitable platforms of the social web are to be further expanded in order to support the Foundation’s transparency policy and openness to dialog. 

Governance and organization

In direct response to the evaluation recommendations, in June 2020 the Board of Trustees established a research committee from among its own ranks. The committee will permanently support and advise the Foundation on aspects surrounding its funding strategy. 

At the Foundation Office, various organizational changes were already implemented in 2020, including the reorganization of the Funding Department and an accompanying redefinition of the team management function.

Starting in the spring of 2021, both the organizational structure as well as the Foundation culture will be the focus, and a common mission statement and set of values will be developed with the participation of all its employees.

Niedersächsisches Vorab

Toward the end of 2020, the Scientific Commission of Lower Saxony with the participation of the Volkswagen Foundation and other partners initiated a potential analysis of Lower Saxony's scientific landscape. The results of the analysis will provide the government of Lower Saxony and the Foundation with a strategic frame of reference for how funding in the frame of the Niedersächsisches Vorab shall be allocated.

Two pilot projects for new forms of Niedersächsisches Vorab funding were initiated in 2020 – and already led to initial successes in early 2021. For example, the universities in Lower Saxony have joined forces to form the joint initiative "Hochschule.digital Niedersachsen" , with the aim of shaping and exploiting the opportunities offered by digitalization in teaching, research and university administration. In a second alliance, stakeholders in quantum technology research have joined forces to develop and build a quantum computer under the umbrella of Quantum Valley Lower Saxony (QVLS) e.V.

Preparation and course of the overall evaluation

Back in 2016, the overall evaluation 2019/20 was already in a first stage of preparation on the basis of four in-depth sub-evaluations in the areas of "science communication", "funding action", "asset investment" and "finance and administration", in the course of which four specifically composed panels developed detailed assessments and recommendations that subsequently served as input for the overall evaluation.

Starting in summer 2018, the Foundation began preparing the overall evaluation in consultation with the Board of Trustees: the terms of reference, the Foundation's self-report, and various supporting materials and statistics were put together, and a seven-member evaluation panel was recruited from experts in the German as well as the Danish, Austrian, and Swiss science and science management systems. In addition to their expertise in various disciplines, foundation and tax law, and science communication, the panel members also possess skills and experience in strategy, organization, leadership, and evaluation procedures. Two members were already familiar with the Foundation’s work through their involvement in the preceding sub-evaluations.

In May 2019, the overall evaluation kicked off with the first of three meetings of the evaluation panel, at which talks were held with staff, trustees, and others on content, information and analysis needs, as well as the methodological approach to be adopted. In the course of the process, the evaluators participated in various foundation events, individually interviewed German science managers, and jointly commissioned a qualitative survey among European science managers.

The report on the findings of the overall evaluation was presented by the chair of the evaluation panel and discussed at a meeting of the Board of Trustees held in June 2020. The Foundation Office's statement on the evaluation report, which is customary for such a process, followed at the December 2020 meeting of the Board of Trustees. It outlined the specific steps with which the Foundation is responding to the evaluation panel's recommendations and a timetable for their implementation.