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Changing the Way We Think About Nonprofit Evaluation Culture

We all know the buzzwords: evaluation, planning, measurement, strategy, outcomes assessment, performance measurement and logic models. However, too often, these are just words. What are we trying to achieve?

We are essentially trying to determine if our organizational and programmatic goals will be met, and if not, how we can revise them to conform to our reality and mission? Sounds easy, right?
Well, not so much. I believe most of us can agree that understanding the connection between the program's successes with indicators to ascertain these achievements is vastly important. However, establishing a robust evaluation culture within the nonprofit organization is easier said than done. What can nonprofits (especially those with limited resources) do to “gear up” and set themselves up for success?
A current nonprofit trend is hiring an Evaluation Manager or Chief Performance Officer to establish systems to gather data and to assess how this data impacts programmatic and organizational performance. While you may not be in a place to hire someone, is there someone within your organization who can serve this function? Are you able to hire an outside consultant to help facilitate this work? You can even think about setting aside a percentage of an existing staff person's time to perform this critical role.
What tools are you using to gather data? Are these tools based on best practices or are you using ones that you have used for years and years? While you might not require an online data capture tool (Excel can sometimes work wonders), you do need to have a data collection tool to help you gather information on outputs and outcomes. These results can then be translated into reports or used in a dashboard or other data visualization tool. The Foundation Center's TRASI site is a great place to start.
Your data gathering and assessment protocols should be standardized, if not for general institutional knowledge but for making critical updates as needed. What policies and procedures do you have in place to document data collection? If you have a system, are people across your organization using it consistently? If you have disparate programs, are they coordinating with one another or do they remain independent? A streamlined, standardized process will provide a more comprehensive view of your organization's activities and achievements.
Lessons Learned
As a Project Management Professional, I always refer to Quality Management, as this ensures the integrity and accuracy of information. The concept of lessons learned allows your organization to address weakness and develop ways to improve service delivery. It is OK that you did not meet your targets, but what are you going to do about it? A quarterly or semi-annual team meeting to review the data gathered about your programs will help shine a light on the work you are doing.
Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your organization's robust evaluation culture. However, small steps can have a huge impact, and in the end, it will help your organization tremendously beyond those grant reports.
What steps will you take to build a culture of evaluation in your organization?
Rachel Werner is the Owner and CEO of RBW Strategy, LLC and provides grants and project management consulting support to nonprofits, government and business entities.

GPC Competencies: 03 - Effective Program/Project Design: 04 - Effective Grant Applications