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Evaluating Yourself or Low-Cost External Evaluation Strategies

Many grants allow or even require you to use an external evaluator to conduct the project evaluation. However, there are still plenty of small grants out there. Either there is no room in the budget for an external evaluator, or the scope of the project is so small that there seems to be no need.
Maybe your grant is for a capital project.


Regardless of the type of project and its size, there is still that report to write at the end of the grant. You need to be able to say something got accomplished. Hopefully you will actually be able to measure an outcome or two, rather than just patting yourself on the back for achieving lots of outputs. (This terminology is important, so if it's new to you, read a chapter in a good grants book about writing strong objectives or attend a conference session on objectives.)

Sometimes the staff delivering the program are qualified to do the evaluation themselves. Sometimes the grant professional ends up doing the evaluating. This may see obvious, but it's critical as soon as you get the grant award to make sure someone is clearly assigned the responsibility for evaluation, and everyone agrees on who is responsible for preparing reports. You would be surprised how many times everyone gets to the end of the grant and finds out they all thought someone else was doing that!

So, call a meeting with program staff, the evaluator, and whoever is responsible for reporting. Do this as early after the grant is funded as possible. :
  • Make clear assignments so everyone knows their responsibilities
  • Make sure everyone knows what you promised to measure in the proposal
  • Make sure whoever is doing the evaluation is actually measuring those things
  • Decide if you want to measure additional things that weren't in the evaluation plan
  • Make sure the program staff know to adhere to the evaluation plan (e.g. if you promised to administer pre- and post-tests)
  • Ensure you are tracking the right information from the beginning
  • Allow you the time to find out if your evaluation plan is going to work or if you need to make some changes

The single most important thing to remember about performing your own evaluations is to measure what you said you would measure (or get permission to change it).
The single most important thing to remember about using an external evaluator is to make sure that person is measuring what you promised you would measure. You get the picture.

If you have to do the evaluation yourself, look upon it as a valuable learning opportunity and a way to expand your skill set. After performing a few evaluations yourself, you will probably write better evaluation plans in the future. You can learn how to create or modify client intake forms to capture needed demographic information. You can learn to design simple pre- and post-tests to measure increases in knowledge or changes in attitude. When I perform these types of evaluations, it is simple to record all of the answers in a spreadsheet for sorting and for creating attractive charts of results.

If you are evaluating a capital project, usually the evaluation consists only of demonstrating that the project came in on time and within budget. You may also report on how many people are being served by the new facility.

For larger programs, there are several strategies to find affordable “external” evaluation. It is not uncommon for different recipients of the same program grant (such as an Upward Bound grant or a Rural Health Network grant) to save money by evaluating each other's programs. In other words, the project directors go to each other's programs to perform the evaluation. The expense is usually limited to travel costs, if there are any.

If you have an organization that is large enough to have different departments or locations, a staff person from another division who is not personally involved with the grant can perform the evaluation. This is almost always accepted by the funder as an “external evaluator” because the person is external to the grant. His or her job does not depend on keeping the project director happy. In other words, this person has the freedom to deliver bad news if necessary.

While we are usually required to perform program evaluations for that final report, what you learn from your evaluation should also help you tweak your program as you go along to make it more effective. If you are interested in skills, consider attending professional development provided by the American Evaluation Association.