How do you know your organization is making a difference? How do you decide what programs or services to offer? What do you tell your funders? How do you know your organization is ready to evaluate?
Program Evaluation Informs Decisions
These are all important questions and ones that nonprofit leaders grapple with daily. Whether you rely on your gut, what staff tell you, or what the data says, the decisions you make are critical. So what role does program evaluation play in decision-making? Program evaluation is defined as a systematic method for collecting, analyzing, and using information to answer questions about projects, policies, and programs. If you want to make the best decisions, program evaluation needs to be a tool for accountability, learning, and improvement. This blog describes how effective evaluation can be a competitive advantage and can help nonprofits thrive.
When evaluation is a tool for accountability, it is typically used to ensure that funding was well spent. It is often a requirement for local, state, and federal funding opportunities. In this scenario, external evaluators make sure that programs and services are implemented as intended, goals and objectives are achieved, and organizations are utilizing resources well. When accountability is misused, evaluators are brought in to report on the actions of organizations, to pinpoint program weaknesses, and to make sure staff know they need to perform.
Evaluation learning is more of a mindset. In this scenario, program evaluation is a tool or resource that helps an organization understand how and why their organization is making a difference. Good and bad results become opportunities for growth. An organization that adopts a learning approach to evaluation, truly wants to know whether or not their programs and services are effective and are best serving their communities. When learning is misused, an organization focuses too much on knowledge for the sake of knowledge, not the application of knowledge for good. In this scenario, there may be a disconnect between knowing something and taking action.
Evaluation improvement is the process of making data-driven decisions to improve organizational programs, policies, and procedures. In this scenario, the organization typically has a culture of continuous improvement. Program evaluation becomes the driver and catalyst for change. Evaluation findings help organizations with an improvement mindset continuously fine-tune their approaches. When improvement is misused, organizations may focus too heavily on perfection and as a result lose out on important opportunities. An organization that relies too heavily on evaluation as a tool for improvement may box themselves into maintaining the status quo. In a changing world, it is important for nonprofit organizations to assess how the needs of their constituents change over time.
Choose to Thrive Instead of Survive
Program evaluation helps nonprofits thrive when it is a tool for accountability, learning, and improvement. Evaluation needs to motivate staff to offer the best services and be leveraged as a tool to make important decisions. Take a moment to assess how your organization is using program evaluation and whether it is helping or hindering how you make critical decisions.
If you have any specific follow-up questions to this blog post, or any other research and evaluation needs, please contact Dr. Annette Shtivelband.