October 31, 2012

Evaluation: You won't get far without it

Over the past 20 years, nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies have been steadily ramping up their commitment to objective and specific outcome measures and to quality program evaluation. But push has now come to shove. The recession-induced drop in foundation giving and the volatile uncertainties of government funding are producing an increasing demand for accountability. To get funding to start new initiatives and to sustain existing services, you've got to be able to prove that what your organization does makes a difference.

How can nonprofit administrators make the tough decisions about where to put limited and often decreasing resources? How can they know which of their efforts are producing the most impact? The question is not, "Did we do the work?" The question is, "Did it make a difference?"

And grantmakers face similar dilemmas. How can they know which of their social investments are paying off? How can they decide which organizations to support with their shrinking bank accounts?

Nonprofit administrators and grantmakers need quality data to support well-informed decision making. And nonprofits need to publicize their outcome data widely in the community. Specific, comprehensible documentation of impact is the best way to counter the complaint that all social programs do is "throw money at problems." It's also a powerful tool for building community support.

A feel-good photo or quote may still produce goose bumps, but without hard data, it's less likely to produce a check. By all means gather and use that sort of qualitative material; it's an important part of the story and can influence decision-makers. But it should illustrate, and be accompanied by, hard data that documents your impact.

While it's imperative to include quality evaluation plans in grant proposals, it's a huge mistake to limit evaluation to grant-funded programs that require it. Increasingly, successful nonprofits will be what we call "evaluative organizations." Their administrators will require that evaluation measures be integrated into all aspects of operation, whether or not it is required or funded. Boards and directors will view ongoing evaluation as a critical administrative function.

Agencies that routinely monitor and measure program outcomes can speak to past successes and future expectations with clarity and power. This is invaluable in organizational decision making, in fundraising, in community relations, and in grant seeking. The tasks nonprofit organizations should routinely carry out include these:

  • Defining, for each organizational function, outcomes that are either meaningful themselves or likely to produce eventual benefits. For eleventh graders, an outcome of high school graduation within two years is significant; for eighth graders, research suggests that outcomes such as improved grades, attendance, and behavior increase the likelihood of eventual graduation.

  • Collecting data that shows whether you've achieved intended outcomes. Law enforcement, schools, and health agencies routinely collect certain types of data, but many organizations collect data only when funders require them to do so. That's a mistake.

  • Adhering to confidentiality standards. Many organizations must follow the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act's strict legal guidelines for client confidentiality, and even those that don't are bound by integrity and law to protect client confidentiality. How permission to collect data was obtained and how the data is collected, stored, and reported are important considerations.

  • Developing benchmarks for program implementation. The longer and more complicated a program, the more important it is that managers have a series of milestones against which they can measure progress. This allows for course correction when things go wrong.

  • Collecting qualitative (soft) data from clients, colleague organizations, and community members about satisfaction with services and communication. Regular "community audits," using interviews, surveys and focus groups, provide valuable information pointing to unrecognized issues or opportunities for improvement.

When organizations evaluate only grant-funded programs, they deprive themselves of a critical management tool and weaken their argument for new or continued financial support. Evaluation efforts will be much less stressful and threatening when they are an overall part of a program's operation, rather than a funder-required test.

Finally, whether you're beginning an organization-wide evaluation of impact, or you're developing an evaluation plan for one specific grant proposal, if your organization lacks substantive experience in evaluation, you may need to bring in an expert. External evaluation consultants can help clarify outcomes, identify data collection tools and processes, train staff, and establish systems for data analysis. And they're necessary when the funder demands an independent voice in the evaluation process.

Chuck Putney has been a consultant trainer for The Grantsmanship Center for more than 25 years. He has worked extensively on successful federal grant proposals funded by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development.

Source: {Centered} October 2012 - Volume 5, Issue 10
© 2012 The Grantsmanship Center. All rights reserved.

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