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From An Expert: “Baby Steps” Towards a Strong Evaluation Culture

As an evaluator, I?ve spent a great deal of time in recent years asking nonprofit professionals how they feel about program evaluation generally, and measuring outcomes specifically.   While nonprofit staff typically identify benefits to the evaluation process, these conversations also reveal concerns, such as feelings of anxiety, intimidation and uncertainly.  Common reactions are: 

?We don?t have the time or expertise to do this but our funder is requiring it!? 

?I know we are doing great things, but how are we supposed to measure them??

?What if we discover something that we don?t want to know??

I?m a firm believer that evaluation can be quite manageable, even in organizations with limited capacity.  If your nonprofit team isn?t well-positioned to plan or implement evaluation, it is important to move forward but be realistic as you do so.  It is perfectly reasonable to take ?baby steps? towards a stronger evaluation culture.  Here are my top three suggestions for what to do first. 

1. Recognize the link between evaluation and client service.

Contrary to popular belief, nonprofits do not?or perhaps more accurately should not? conduct evaluations and measure outcomes solely to satisfy funders. Meaningful process and outcome evaluations are critical to understanding how your services can best support client needs.  Outcome data help you identify what works, as well as what needs tweaking, so you can design or refine programs for maximum benefit. So, what does this mean for your clients?  Better service.  More effective programs.  Greater reach within high-need target populations. Looking for more reasons why evaluation and outcomes are important? Read more. 

2. Get clear on evaluation language.

I repeatedly hear feedback from nonprofits that struggle with the distinction between ?outputs? and ?outcomes?.  In a nutshell, if you?re speaking in terms of your organization, what your staff is doing, or any description couched in terms of your workload (e.g., clients served) ? that?s an output.  Alternatively, outcomes are changes that occur within your clients or target population. Want a good place to start for a refresher on basic evaluation semantics? Click here! 

3. Face your fear, for your organization’s sake.

Every organization has room for improvement.  If you?re not measuring results because you fear evaluation may reveal that your nonprofit isn?t perfect, then you?re leaving your organization wide open to risk?risk that will most likely blindside you when it ultimately comes to light.  So, is ?bad? news really the problem? Learn more.

A meaningful evaluation framework is vital to promote organizational effectiveness and sustainability.  Begin with one of these steps to move your nonprofit in the right direction!

Ask An Expert Guest Blog Post by Trina Willard, Knowledge Advisory GroupLearn more about how you can become our next expert.

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