“Baby Steps” Towards a Strong Evaluation Culture

baby steps to evaluation | Knowledge Advisory GroupAs 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!

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  1. I think non-profits would always want to evaluate and re-evaluate what they’re’ doing. Not just for their funders, but for the market they serve. They need to see what’s working and what isn’t so they can improve their efforts each year.

    • Thanks Debra. Program evaluation, for nonprofits, product or service evaluation, for businesses, and self-evaluation, for individuals, gives us the information we need to continuously improve, absolutely!

  2. Facing your fear is so important to improving. If we cannot push past our fears, we stay stuck! I’m glad you wrote about that piece. It’s something we all forget, especially when we are amidst our own fears.

    • Mingling, thanks so much for your thoughts on this. Evaluation is often seen as a threat, so I frequently hear the question “What if the news is bad?” Organizations seem to mistake lack of awareness for safety sometimes – just the opposite true!

  3. Any organisation working with people should have clear evaluation processes in place this should be a given. It will minimize the risk to your organisation and benefit staff and your clients and in some cases will even help you secure funding.

    • Wendy, yes! Evaluation has a very strong link to funding in the nonprofit sector. It’s becoming much more the rule rather than the exception.

  4. I’m not in the nonprofit world, but I struggle with this a fair amount with my clients. The services I offer can be measured in a number of ways, and helping them to see the value in more than one of these measurements is sometimes a challenge. I appreciate your practical advice around these issues!

    • Jessica – I’ve been “working” on my physical self for about six months now. You comment is so true. While I’ve been focused on the obvious number – weight – what I’ve found is that there are so many other measures that have meant something to me as I see the journey unfold: clothes sizes, how easily I get winded, and even how many days that my back hurts during a typical week. I’m a big believer that there’s a way, quantitative or qualitative (or both) to measure almost anything, but demonstrating value that is not obvious or traditional takes a bit of eye-opening experience. Start with something you can show them to build credibility, then they will follow you on the path to measuring other things!

  5. Trina… I currently work for a non-profit foundation (education focused) and “we” are struggling at the moment. I often make suggestions to the “higher-ups” but they aren’t always received well. Not sure if it’s denial, resistance…? Anyway, I KNOW evaluation is the next logical step if not solution. Any suggestions as to how I could diplomatically make a suggestion? Thanks!

    • Kelly – this is not uncommon in nonprofit organization, especially if they have a feel-good service that has not had tremendous scrutiny in the past. However the times, they are a changin’, and have been for some time. I do have several suggestions – from asking a few harmless questions about how their fundraising is going, to finding a pain point that is on their radar, then suggesting how evaluation could help work that issue through. The most diplomatic prompt may depend on your current role in the organization, so that would be helpful to know. I’d be happy to talk with you more about this. If you’d like to email me at Trina@KnowledgeAdvisoryGroup, perhaps we can chat?

  6. Facing your fears is critical in all things if we want to move forward. I’m not involved with any nonprofit but I could understand how having a good evaluation framework in place would be really important to the flow of the organization on many different levels.

  7. I think it’s important to evaluate your results no matter what you are doing. It’s what helps you discover what works, what can be expanded and what needs to be released.

    Facing your fear is an important part of the process.

  8. Great article Trina! You provide excellent points that are necessary for any organization to move forward. We all need need to put an evaluation process into place so that we can grow stronger and better support the needs of the people we serve.

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