Effective evaluation a vital component for success


At a recent panel discussion on corporate philanthropy, I was asked about some trends that are having a major impact on nonprofit organizations.

One of the most significant changes in corporate philanthropy is the insistence on more accountability. Hardly revolutionary, this change has been evolving for the past decade. With corporate charitable dollars in short supply -- after all, it is only about 6 percent of all charitable giving in this country -- it makes sense that companies want to be sure that their funds are well spent.

One of the key components of accountability is evaluation -- comparing an organization's goals with its performance. Few areas are as poorly understood as evaluation. This is especially true for social service organizations.

These nonprofits often protest that much of their program goals cannot even be adequately stated in performance terms, let alone measured. After all, how do you quantify changes in attitude for homeless people, or increases in self-esteem for youth at risk?

While these concerns have merit, they often are based on information that is out of date. Today, the science of evaluation has come a long way, providing us with improved tools of evaluation.

A new book by Independent Sector, the Washington-based advocate for nonprofits, helps place evaluation in a proper perspective. "A Vision of Evaluation" is not a how-to manual for those interested in evaluating specific programs. Yet, I would strongly recommend the work to anyone involved in the daily operations of nonprofits, especially board committees that evaluate program effectiveness.

Unfortunately, too many nonprofit administrators view evaluation as a distraction, a pain-in-the-rear hoop to jump through en route to funding from a corporate foundation or government source.

A key point of "A Vision of Evaluation" is that evaluation should not be viewed as a product, but rather as a process, a way for an organization to gain information to improve its effectiveness.

The process provides an organization with the information it needs for renewal. Organizations committed to this process not only improve their effectiveness, but invariably attract more funding and public support.

The irony here is that such organizations do so even when results show a particular program is less effective than it should be. Simply institutionalizing the evaluation process sends a clear message to funders and supporters.

"A Vision of Evaluation" hopes to put three principal elements of evaluation in place. First, Independent Sector hopes to encourage nonprofits to commit to evaluation and renewal.

Second, they want the sector to have the skills, tools, methods, services and other resources available to get the job done right.

Finally, they hope the sector will use the results of evaluation programs to learn, renew themselves and help strengthen the sector as a whole.

Good evaluation, according to the booklet's authors, is mission driven. To that end, "it is not an event, but a process; not episodic, but ongoing; not outside the organization, but ingrained in the day-to-day operations of the organization." Part of the challenge is for nonprofit organizations to institutionalize that philosophy, so that evaluation is viewed as an opportunity to improve.

"A Vision of Evaluation" includes chapters on using evaluation to improve effectiveness, common barriers, uses of evaluation, the human side of evaluation, desired outcomes and guiding principles.

In next week's column, we'll look at some key elements of nonprofit evaluation.

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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