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By: Catherine Seibel, Impact Assessment for Foundations and Nonprofits
It has taken me some time – and no small amount of deep breathing – to realize that nonprofit organizations don’t really want my services (Sounds like I have a fantastic business model on my hands, doesn’t it?). Almost exclusively, organizations contact me because of some type of external pressure: either a program officer has asked about measurement, or a proposal requires an evaluation component, or a foundation is offering support to conduct an assessment of a specific program.
As a result, nonprofits often feel a sense of urgency to do something quickly to satisfy funders, without a real consideration of the type of sustained learning that a rigorous, thoughtful evaluation can provide to the organization’s board and staff.
With this in mind, what follows are three essential steps to dealing with a sudden external pressure to evaluate your programs.
1. Talk to Your Funders. Your program officer wants you to succeed. They have invested in your organization and your people, and they are actively engaged in your accomplishments. To that end, it is well worth your time to have a conversation with them about what, specifically, they’d like to know. In some cases it might be as simple as a map of the communities that you serve or a few numbers indicating satisfaction with a new program. In my experience, funders very rarely expect a huge, expensive system of data collection (especially at the beginning). It could very well be that you already *have* the data that they’re looking for, and simply need to present it differently.
2. Start Small. For social service organizations with multiple programs and diverse client bases, it doesn’t make sense to launch an enormous evaluation for every group (even if you had the time and the money!). Your best bet is to choose one or two programmatic elements and begin with those. Have you recently launched a new initiative? Started at a new site? Have a program that you’re thinking of expanding to other locations? These might be good places to start with an assessment.
3. Match Methods with Programs. I listened in on a webinar a while back where a group of nonprofit professionals were talking earnestly about how to incorporate randomized, pre- and post-tests into their evaluation. This blew me away for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that these folks were providing grief counseling – not exactly an area where you want a control group who doesn’t receive services! It prompted me to develop a talk entitled, “Grief is Not a Randomized Drug Trial: Considering Alternatives to a Pre- and Post-Test Assessment” that focused on developing metrics and methodologies that make sense for your specific type of program. I cannot stress enough that evaluation is never a one-size-fits-all situation.
1 (again). Talk to Your Funders. Once you have identified one or two programmatic elements to focus on, and have identified the methods that are best suited to measuring their impact, present them to your program officers. Oftentimes, program officers don’t have any more training than you do in evaluation. In my experience, if you can show funders that you’re asking the right questions about your effectiveness – and that you sincerely want to learn from the answers – they are eager to meet you in the middle.
Best of Luck!
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