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When Should I Bring in a "Hired Gun"? Using Evaluation Specialists Effectively

I have been working as a grants professional for over 13 years. While I know others whose experience in this area vastly trumps my own, I also have seen changes in how the grant seeking process has developed. The process is more competitive. There are more organizations seeking funding. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has become more stringent about performance measurement, transparency and accountability in the latest Uniform Grant Guidance. Organizations are required to become more strategic and donor cultivation is paramount to establishing long- term relationships with funders.

This means that overall, the grant seeking process has become more focused on return on investment and measuring impact of grant seeking organizations, programs and projects funded through grant awards. Essentially, funders need a way to determine how to differentiate between organizations and their effective stewardship of grant funding. Plus, evaluation measurement is in vogue.
Why is evaluation needed?
Funders, especially federal agencies and large private foundations, are requesting detailed evaluation plans (benchmark targets, outputs, outcomes and impact and how these are measured) and assurance that continuous quality improvement (CQI) is taking place, even for non-research oriented programs and organizations. This allows funders to gauge program effectiveness and potential impact while also determining whether organizations have the capacity to manage the funds they receive. However, many smaller and mid-sized nonprofits and municipalities (and even some larger organizations) do not have robust processes and systems to measure their impact; and since many grantees do not have in-house evaluation measurement protocols taking place, they have to outsource this process.
What is an evaluation specialist and when should I use one?
There are different types of evaluation specialists, so before determining when to you use one, you need to know what they can do to help you. Please keep in mind that evaluation specialists can likely do one or more of these items below. Here are some reasons as to why you might need an evaluation specialist:
  1. Evaluation planning: Some independent consultants and private firms will help you develop a plan to structure how you will measure impact, create logic models and review your program and organizational design to provide feedback on incorporating these elements into your existing organization. 
When to use: When you need support with strategic planning or review of existing processes - without as much focus on hands-on implementation.
  1. Tool design: Technology consultants and vendors are able to create some tools that require customization, and there are vendors who offer tools that you can use to capture evaluation data.
When to use: When you have research projects that need standardized data captured across the organization and you need to create a robust process that maps to the organization's strategic plan.
  1. Ongoing evaluation/Research: Evaluation specialists often have PhDs or are known experts in certain fields with published data or research. They are often affiliated with a university or are independent consultants.
When to use: When you need an expert to create a research design and track the data throughout the project, outsourcing of program evaluation measurement and organizational implementation.
What factors should I consider when looking for an evaluation specialist?
  • Organizational capacity – what resources can you provide vs. outsourcing this work?
  • How much funding are you able to allocate for this support (if not subsidized through a grant)?
  • What specific expertise are you seeking and why is the support needed?
  • Do you want the specialist to have expertise in a certain industry or topic area?
  • How long will you need this support?
If you need help finding evaluation specialists, the GPA includes members who are evaluators and vendors who are sponsors. It will also be helpful to connect with the American Evaluation Association (there are local chapters) to find evaluators who will collaborate or support your efforts.