“Baby Steps” Towards a Strong Evaluation Culture

As an evaluator, a large part of what I’ve done in recent years is ask nonprofit professionals how they generally feel about program evaluation and measuring specific outcomes.

These professionals typically identify some of the benefits of the evaluation process, but our conversations also reveal concerns such as anxiety, intimidation, and uncertainty about evaluation. Some of the reactions I often hear are:

“We don’t have the time or expertise to do this but our funder is requiring it!” 

“I know we’re doing great things, but how are we supposed to measure them?”

“What if we discover something that we don’t want to know?”

Evaluation can be quite manageable, even in organizations with limited capacity to plan or implement evaluation. If that sounds familiar to your nonprofit team, it’s still important to move forward, but to be realistic. It is entirely possible to take “baby steps” towards a stronger evaluation culture. These are my top three suggestions for what to do first.

1. Understand Evaluation Language

I often hear feedback from nonprofits struggling with the distinction between “outputs” and “outcomes.” Simply put, if you’re speaking in terms of what your staff is doing, your organization, or any description couched in terms of your workload (e.g., clients served) – that’s an output of your organization. Outcomes are changes that occur within your clients or target population due to your services.

It’s understandable to have a little confusion with the various evaluation terms, but it’s also important to gain an understanding of them in order to make sense of the evaluation process. Want a good refresher on basic evaluation semantics? Click here!

2. Face Your Fear
(for your organization’s sake!)

Though none of us really want to admit it, every organization has at least some room for improvement. Are you worried about measuring results because you fear evaluation may reveal that your organization isn’t perfect? If so, then you’re leaving your organization wide open to risks that could blindside you when they ultimately come to light.

Committing to an evaluation is not a demonstration of failure; it’s a demonstration of willingness to always improve. So, is “bad” news really the problem? Learn more.

3. Recognize the Connection Between Evaluation & Client Service

Contrary to popular belief, nonprofits do not – or perhaps, more accurately, should not – measure outcomes and conduct evaluations for the sole satisfaction of funders.

In order to understand how your services can best support client needs, meaningful process and outcome evaluations are critical. Outcome data can help you identify what works, as well as what needs tweaking, so that you are better able to design and/or refine your organization’s programs for their maximum benefit.

This translates into better service and more effective programs for your clients, not to mention greater reach within high-need target populations. If you’re looking for even more reasons why evaluation and outcomes are important, read more here.
Having a meaningful evaluation framework is vital to promoting sustainability and organizational effectiveness.

Start with one of these three easy steps to move your nonprofit in the right direction!