1. Section Introduction
There are many reasons to learn more about evaluation. This section will be helpful for anyone who is:
- Planning an evaluation for the first time
- Wants to enrich their understanding of evaluation in order to incorporate it more fully into grant proposals
- Aims to build their organization’s internal capacity in evaluation and intends to share this information with their colleagues, boards or staff teams.
In this section, we’ll dispel some common myths about evaluation, and describe the ways in which evaluation can strengthen our nonprofit organizations.
Next are tools to help us build our organization’s Evaluation Capacity Building (ECB) functions. These resources help us to identify the components of ECB and provide strategies we can consider when developing an approach that suits our organizational goals, objectives and resources. After all, our organizational capacity to do evaluation effectively is an important part of what we gain when we first begin program evaluation. We will then provide some tips for building evaluation into the program planning cycle so that we can make regular use of evaluation data to drive programmatic and organizational improvements. We will wrap up this section with a number of questions that nonprofits can consider before planning for evaluation.
2. Program Evaluation – what it is and what it isn’t
Program evaluation is often seen as a “necessary evil.” Something that funders require, but something we would gladly dispense with otherwise. After all, doesn’t the fact that we run our programs day to day show that we already know everything we need to know about them? Isn’t evaluation really just an obsession with data?
Let’s face it – we don’t always know what we don’t know. In our programs that perform well, it’s likely we found an approach that was suited to the existing needs at the time. How do we know if what we’re delivering is really having the effect we intended? Also, how do we adapt and hone our operations so we continue to deliver high quality programs and services into the future?
This is where evaluation comes in. A program evaluation, if done well will help determine the effectiveness of our programs and generate recommendations for improvement that will make them even more successful. This is particularly important when program funding is tied to results or outcomes. Evaluation is the way to assess progress against outcomes that is trusted and verifiable. It requires planning, but it’s worth it.
We know there are many ideas about evaluation that make it seem difficult and out-of-reach for most nonprofits on modest budgets. Download our ‘common myths’ prepsheet to discover some perceived barriers to evaluation and how they can be addressed.
3. Benefits of Program Evaluation
There is tremendous pressure on nonprofits to prove their effectiveness and to demonstrate that they are achieving what they’ve set out to do. Because of this, accountability is a main reason for evaluation. Accountability to funders, to program participants, boards, staff and the public. Evaluation also provides a unique vantage point from which we can view what we do and how well we do it.
Evaluation can help us:
- Develop a deeper understanding of client needs and expectations
- Demonstrate program outcomes to funders and other stakeholders
- Substantiate a request for increased funding by providing evidence of effectiveness
- Drive improvements based on data collected about program performance
- Weigh program costs and resource requirements against client needs and program outcomes
- Document program performance that supports internal decision-making about changes to the program or staffing needs
- Gain insights used for strategic planning
- Help build our organization’s visibility and credibility
4. Building Evaluation Capacity
Evaluation capacity building (ECB) involves the design and implementation of teaching and learning strategies to help individuals, groups, and organizations, learn about what constitutes effective, useful, and professional evaluation practice. The ultimate goal of evaluation capacity building is sustainable evaluation practice – where members continuously ask questions that matter, collect, analyze, and interpret data, and use evaluation findings for decision-making and action.
Organizational learning is incredibly important. Organizations that are adept at learning from mistakes and adapting to new challenges are more likely to be successful, and more likely to make significant progress toward mission-related outcomes. In general, ECB can be used to:
Improve the knowledge and skills of individuals – Staff members need to have an understanding of evaluation, and the confidence to apply basic evaluation approaches and methods to their work. Everyone does not need to be an expert, but everyone does need to have a basic support for and understanding of evaluation.
Strengthen organizational evaluation approaches – Within an organization, there have to be effective mechanisms to support evaluation. Established systems and processes support staff to identify, collect, and use evaluative information.
We’ve compiled resources here that explain the purpose of evaluation capacity across the dimensions of knowledge, skills, and beliefs as well as a checklist that can help to guide the formulation of our ECB strategy. We also share an in-depth look at ten strategies to build ECB with examples and suggestions for implementation.
5. Building Evaluation Into Program Planning
When we build evaluation into the planning of programs, we bolster our internal organizational strength and our external authority and authenticity. It shows that we have a genuine interest in knowing what works with our programs and why it works. It also shows that we’re serious about ensuring our program impacts and operations are the best that they can be. It signals we’re prepared to explore new ways of delivering and organizing our services if evidence guides us in a new direction.
Download our tip sheet that will help to position evaluation activities within the program planning cycle.
6. Developing An Evaluation Mindset
Weaving evaluation activities into nonprofit operations involves developing an evaluation mindset. Part of that journey involves addressing any misunderstandings we may have about what evaluation may or may not mean for our organization’s future. We also need to determine how our evaluation activities will connect with our program goals or objectives and consider what kinds of stories we want to tell with the data we collect. In this pre-evaluation phase, this “Evaluation 101 worksheet” can help provide a foundation for evaluation thinking as it applies specifically to our nonprofit’s needs.
7. Getting Started
So, what exactly is Program Evaluation and what do I need to get started?
Program Evaluation can seem like a complex activity when we’re just starting out. That’s why planning for an evaluation is essential. We can begin by discussing our organization’s answers to these basic questions:
- What decisions do we want to be able to make as a result of our evaluation?
- Who are primary audiences for the results?
- What kinds of information do we need?
- When is this information needed?
- Where will we get the information and how?
- What resources are available to get the information, analyze it and report it?
- How will we report that information in a useful fashion?
Assessing our organization’s readiness to evaluate is an important first step. The Basic Ingredients Guide explains what needs to be in place before we decide if it is the right time for evaluation.
ONN’s Five Important Discussion Questions is a guide to having a conversation about evaluation with our board or other stakeholder groups. Finally, the Rainbow Framework is a guide for planning an evaluation through a series of questions and steps.
8. References for this section
- Evaluation: What it is and Why do it
- Types of Evaluation
- Evaluation Myths and Benefits
- Program Evaluation Guide
- A Checklist for Building Organizational Evaluation Capacity
- Evaluation Toolbox
- Read about how other Peel Nonprofits have built their evaluation capacity
Next: Planning for Evaluation