Many people think of evaluation as taking a snapshot of outcomes at the end of a program to prove to a funder that the program worked. Some people don’t hold evaluation in much regard; they believe they are getting too little information too late in the day, especially if their program fell short of expectations or made no difference at all. However, evaluation can, and should, be used as an ongoing management and learning tool to improve an organization’s effectiveness.
Well-run organizations and effective programs are those that demonstrate the achievement of results. Results are derived from good management. Good management is based on good decision making. Good decision making depends on good information. Good information requires good data and careful analysis of the data. These are all critical elements of evaluation.
Evaluation refers to a periodic process of gathering data and then analyzing it in such a way that the resulting information can be used to determine whether your organization or program is effectively carrying out planned activities. An evaluation can also illustrate the extent to which your organization or program is achieving its stated objectives and anticipated results.
Managers can and should conduct internal evaluations to get information about their programs so that they can make sound decisions about the implementation of those programs. Internal evaluations should be conducted on an ongoing basis and applied conscientiously by managers at every level of an organization in all program areas. In addition, all of the program’s participants (managers, staff, and beneficiaries) should be involved in the evaluation process in appropriate ways. This collaboration helps ensure that the evaluation is fully participatory and builds commitment on the part of all involved to use the results to make critical program improvements.
Although most evaluations are done internally, conducted by and for program managers and staff, there is still a need for large, external evaluations conducted periodically by individuals from outside the program or organization. Most often these external evaluations are required for funding purposes or to answer questions about the program’s long-term impact by looking at changes in demographic indicators such as graduation rates or poverty level. In addition, a manager may occasionally request an external evaluation to assess programmatic or operating problems that have been identified but that cannot be fully diagnosed or resolved through the findings of internal evaluations.
Program evaluation, conducted on a regular basis, can greatly improve the management and effectiveness of your organization and its programs. To do so requires understanding the differences between monitoring and evaluation, making evaluation an integral part of regular program planning and implementation, and collecting the different types of information needed by managers at different levels of the organization.
An excellent source of information on conducting nonprofit evaluations has been developed by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The information is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.