Program evaluation is a key component of operating and sustaining effective nonprofit organizations. Evaluation provides systematic information about the results of your programs and their contributions to individual and community change. That is, it’s research that involves asking focused questions about your organization, gathering information that will answer these questions and analyzing and documenting the answers. Evaluation can help improve the work you are doing as well as prove your value to others.
Investing in evaluation pays off. If your organization receives foundation grants, evaluating your programs may already be a condition of funding. However, developing and implementing an evaluation strategy of your own can help you get ahead of funders’ requests for information about your programs. If your organization approaches evaluation proactively, you can take control of your efforts and results.
Conducting evaluations can be part of a continuous process of building intentional and accountable programs and organizational systems. In a general sense, developing connections between evaluation and functions such as program planning, communications and fundraising may lead to stronger overall organizational coordination. Creating a workable system for collecting information and tracking evaluation findings helps you avoid recreating the wheel for each proposal or program report; important statistics and client stories will be readily available when you need them.
Evaluations can help you produce compelling information for specific fundraising campaigns and for a long-term strategy of building community support. Using program evaluation as part of a successful fundraising strategy involves incorporating the results of your evaluation into your grant proposals, ongoing reports and presentations to foundations and other funders. Use media campaigns, annual reports, brochures, your web site and one-on-one meetings as opportunities to communicate the results to donors and members. Evaluations can distinguish your organization, increase organizational visibility and build community support for your work.
In addition to providing proof to current funders that they should continue to invest in your organization, evaluation findings may lead your organization to seek out new funding sources. If your evaluations show that your programs are serving populations you didn’t originally expect to reach or meeting community needs in unanticipated ways, you may want to reconsider the program objectives and package your programs differently for varied audiences and potential supporters. For example, if you find that a program that originally focused on helping people find employment also helps clients secure affordable housing, you might look for funders who are interested in funding both employment- and housing-related programs.
Working With Funders
Funders sometimes provide a specific list of outcomes to be reported if an evaluation is a condition of funding. When an organization measures only what the funder asks, it may miss the questions and information the organization itself may have about a program’s success or challenges.
If your questions are not in line with the funder’s, you might consider discussing the questions you want answered and how you want to find those answers, so you can reach some agreement about the form and content of the evaluation. For example, you may prefer a more qualitative approach – reporting the story behind the successes of a program, with quotations and case studies – versus a more quantitative approach that will give you numbers and statistics.
If your organization already has an evaluation plan and design, it might be easier to advocate for using it. On the other hand, if you know that a funder requires use of a particular form or process for collecting information about funded services, you should consider building those elements into your ongoing evaluation efforts.
Having conducted your own evaluation prepares you for presenting any “negative” or unexpected findings to funders. Proactive evaluation can lead to closer relationships with funders that are grounded in your organization’s priorities.
Before you begin your evaluation, ask questions about your organization’s purpose and capacity.
WHY evaluate? Are you planning a fundraising campaign, creating a program or launching a new initiative? Are you writing an annual report, a grant proposal or a strategic plan? Evaluation potentially can inform all of these areas of work.
WHAT do you want to know? What are your top three questions? Are you interested in assessing a specific program or the entire organization? Do you want to evaluate organizational processes, specific outcomes or broader impacts? Which questions do you need to answer immediately and which can wait?
WHO is the audience? Is it an internal or external audience? Will you disseminate findings to community members or to organizations? Is your primary audience foundations, government funders and/or individual donors? Defining your primary audience helps you consider the types of deliverables to produce.
HOW will your organization complete the evaluation? You might start by assessing your organization’s technological and staffing capacity. How well can you gather and store information? Is staff experienced with conducting evaluations? Can the organization spare staff time, or should you hire external consultants?
There are many stages to planning and implementing an evaluation. The answers to these questions will help you get started and move on to the next steps, such as creating the research design and budget. Once you start to integrate evaluation into the work you do already – program planning, communications, fundraising – you may find that it becomes a valuable part of your ongoing processes of organizational learning.