Effective evaluation starts with asking the right questions


June 13, 1994|By LESTER A. PICKER

What are the key elements that should be in place to create an effective nonprofit evaluation program?

According to Independent Sector, the nonprofit advocacy group Washington, there are several keys to success. Its recent report, "A Vision of Evaluation," spells out these keys.

Evaluation starts with asking the right questions, going about the business of gathering information, then using the data to make informed decisions. Too many organizations plan programs in the absence of required data. Effective decision-making is an outgrowth of effective evaluation.

Evaluation is a state of mind, a way of doing business that should be ingrained into every phase of operations. It is everyone's responsibility. Everyone should ask, "What can we do to improve?"

The end result of evaluation is not a report for a funding source. It is institutional learning, a way to assess progress and to define performance toward accomplishing its mission. With this mindset, learning is a valued and inculcated aspect of the organization, and a key component of continuous quality improvement.

Too often we look at evaluation as a distraction from the main mission of the organization. That is a flawed view of the world, as quality management and continuous improvement practices clearly show. Instead, evaluation needs to be ongoing and a facet of every area of operations.

Effective evaluation rewards risks and failures. Without risk, few advances are made. Program failures create learning opportunities. The key here is to be honest with funding sources and supporters. Ask for help. Show how learnings will be applied to future operations.

I remember a Washington-based youth services organization that implemented a largely successful program in several elementary schools. However, one of the school sites did not do well. Rather than bury the data from that one site -- something that could have been easily done statistically -- it highlighted that failure. It then used the findings to secure more money to research and to correct the program, then to apply what it learned citywide. Funders were not only impressed, they volunteered to bring in additional resources to rectify the situation. The agency's credibility went up several notches.

Nonprofits need to understand that evaluation includes both formative and summative components. In other words, leadership can use ongoing (formative) evaluation to modify practices prior to final (summative) reporting. This flexibility characterizes best-run for-profit corporations, too.

One of the best side effects of a commitment to evaluation is that it encourages partnerships. If the end result is to improve program effectiveness and to direct benefits to clients, then one tends to bring in whomever is needed to achieve those end results. Partnerships can involve other organizations, but should also involve donors and funding sources.

One of the barriers to implementing an ongoing evaluation plan is that it is too costly or too difficult to conceptualize and to implement.

While it is true that effective evaluation programs take time to develop, they need not be costly, according to Innovation Network, a D.C.-based nonprofit that helps regional nonprofits develop evaluation programs.

InnoNet, as it is called, provides a subsidized evaluation program for nonprofits. According to its director, Allison Fine, InnoNet keeps costs down by forming a collaborative effort with the nonprofit client, which helps it build its own future capabilities.

Most funders with whom we work believe that an organization's commitment to evaluating all its programs and operations bodes well for its investment. Resources today are limited. Isn't it better invest in an organization that wants to improve its total effectiveness, funders often ask, rather than one that simply wishes to meet an immediate need?

"A Vision of Evaluation" is available from Independent Sector at (202) 223-8100. InnoNet can be reached at (202) 728-0727.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202, [410] 783-5100)

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