Harnessing the Power of Evaluation for Effective Programming
Nonprofits play an essential role in our society. They feed the hungry, house the homeless and confront countless other issues head-on. Despite their importance, nonprofits are often under-resourced and underfunded in key areas, namely: evaluation.
Program evaluation is key to any nonprofit’s success. Without a regular, thorough look at how their programs are operating, organizations risk slowing down, not maximizing resources and, ultimately, having a smaller impact on the communities they serve. Yet funding for evaluations can be hard to come by. Many nonprofits are interested in pursuing program evaluations because they recognize their value and importance, but — given the strict limitations often placed on funding streams and the lack of interest of many philanthropies in supporting program evaluations — they are limited in their capacity to actually pursue this work.
When a nonprofit is able to invest in proper program evaluation, the returns can be major: stronger processes, improved performance and a supercharged impact. And the good news is that program evaluation is a muscle: Once a nonprofit builds it up, it becomes easier to maintain and use, providing a durable foundation for organizational improvement and success.
Here are seven tips for harnessing the power of evaluation.
1. Make Evaluations Sexy
One of the main barriers precluding nonprofits from conducting program evaluations is that few philanthropies want to fund them. But program evaluation is a vital tool that supports all the elements of a nonprofit’s work that philanthropies do fund — innovation, improved service delivery and increased impact, to name a few. Find ways to clearly connect the findings of an evaluation to tangible improvements across the organization to call attention to the importance of evaluation.
2. Set a Strong Baseline
Any program evaluation needs a strong foundation — a clear understanding of what’s being scrutinized and why. You can build that foundation by asking and answering a handful of key questions. Some may feel obvious, and yet prove difficult to answer — proof that the evaluation is necessary. Questions include:
- What is the program attempting to accomplish?
- How does the program measure success or impact?
- What program data is being tracked?
- How do we rank among our peers?
- How does the program fit in with broader organizational goals?
Answering these questions isn’t an exercise that a single program officer or director can accomplish in an afternoon. Rather, it requires a mix of people and data — which brings us to the next few recommendations.
3. Tap Into Historical Data
A successful program evaluation isn’t based on hunches and gut feelings. Rather, it’s based on data collected over the past several months and years. Historical data can provide incredibly useful insights into program implementation and performance over time — from the amount of resources spent, to the number of people reached, and beyond. It’s crucial for pinpointing what’s been successful and what hasn’t. Data can also point you toward areas that need deeper investigation. For example, why do donations dip in the summer months? Or, why are community members less responsive to email versus direct mail?
But what if there is no historical data? This is where a qualitative approach can be important. Although you may lack a spreadsheet with numbers, you can still interview relevant stakeholders — past and present staff, funders, and community members — to uncover trends.
4. Open Up the Conversation
Program evaluations require input from a broad range of people. To start, involve the staff who play a direct role in the program. Then, expand it out to board members and funders, who can bring additional insight and new perspectives on topics like mission alignment, impact measurement and program direction. Of course, board members and funders shouldn’t be a part of the day-to-day evaluation. Instead, they should be involved at a higher-level, receiving updates on a monthly or quarterly basis.
5. Always Dig Deeper
As your program evaluation begins to yield findings, take the time to fully understand them. For example, if an evaluation identifies a problem with the program’s messaging, don’t simply rewrite some key messages and call it a day. Rather, kick off a broader conversation about the messaging: Who didn’t it resonate with, and why? Is this a problem that may exist elsewhere across the organization? How do we address this in a meaningful way? And so forth. Information gathered in an evaluation should jumpstart a process of continuous data collection, analysis and program improvement.
6. Share Your Findings Widely
A program evaluation can be quite the undertaking. To ensure a return on investment, make sure your learnings reach the right audiences. Results should be shared with all stakeholders: from program staff and the program director, to others at the organization, to the board, funders, and, when appropriate, the community. The successes and challenges of the program should be discussed in-depth via a working session with the whole program team. During this process, ensure you’re presenting clear, positively-framed pathways forward that are both achievable and actionable.
7. Call on Philanthropies To Fund Evaluations
No one understands the importance of evaluation better than you. And your voice matters to funders. Make sure that your funders understand the impact evaluation could have.
As your nonprofit begins 2022, one of the best investments you can make is a thorough program evaluation. Armed with key insights about program successes and challenges, you can ensure the organization — and the community you serve — is teed up to thrive.
Celeste Frye, AICP, is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners LLC, a certified Women's Business Enterprise, Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and Small Business Enterprise planning and consulting firm, specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the nonprofit, government and private sectors.