Thinking about Doing Some Evaluation? Here’s How to Get Started

While having coffee with a friend the other day, she bemoaned her upcoming annual performance review. I suggested that she think of it as “me” time. Time set aside to talk exclusively about you and ideally, a space to invite feedback, discuss managing the challenges of the work and future direction. Many people dread evaluation, whether it’s Board evaluation, organizational evaluation or program evaluation, because we associate it with judgment and accountability. But like a staff performance review, it should be an organization’s “me” time — an opportunity to pause, consider how we’re doing, take stock of our achievements and celebrate.

In the hurly-burly chaos of community work, evaluation provides a time to focus on why we do what we do and what we’ve done. The essence of evaluation is the pausing and taking stock of what we’re doing, and can be as simple as sitting together to discuss and reflect on our work. We all want to know whether what we’re doing is making a difference and having the impact we want. Many of us have a strong sense that our work is touching people’s lives in positive ways.

We engage directly with people, know their stories, and understand what’s happening in our communities. That’s important– but it’s also important to translate that sense that things are working into something more tangible and structured. Formal evaluation gives us systematic methods of finding out how we’re doing, reflecting on that information, and deciding whether to make changes– and it can still involve capturing the stories and experiences of the people and communities we work with (Most Significant Change Stories Method is one such method; see here and here for more information). 

Here are the most important things to think about before embarking on an evaluation project.

The first step is to clarify why, for who, and how you will use an evaluation. The answers to those questions will shape the evaluation. Often, people jump straight into evaluation methods. What kind of evaluation should we do and how should we collect information? But deciding on which method to use should be the last step of planning an evaluation. For example, do you have a hunch that a program needs some tweaking? Are you planning to expand or scale your program? Do you want to be better able to tell your community, members, donors and partners what you’re achieving thanks to their collaboration and support? Each of those objectives would be approached differently.

If a funder is requiring an evaluation, find out what their expectations are and what they’re interested in knowing. Is it basically for monitoring, accountability and demonstrating to a funder that you did what you said you would? Does the funder want to know the number of bums-in-seats (people reached), or do they want to know what difference participating in a program made, or what you, as an organization learnt by piloting a new program? That said, an evaluation for a funder should still be useful to the organization. Evaluation reports that don’t travel any further that someone’s filing cabinet is a terrible waste of resources and opportunity. Some funders are actually quite flexible, but it’s important to know what you want in order to design a process that meets everyone’s needs.

There are always some risks in doing evaluation. Lots of evaluation projects tell us what we already know. Sometimes, that can still be useful, but we aren’t learning anything new and it isn’t very interesting. Clarify your purpose at the start and keep revisiting and adjusting to insure that your plan will give you what you are looking for.

Evaluations can also take up lots of time and resources and become complicated very quickly, so make sure to keep it simple, and check that your plans are feasible. Watch out for the phenomena of “drowning by numbers”. Ask yourself: do we really need all this information?

Be very careful to respect people’s privacy. If possible, keep people’s identity confidential and avoid intrusive questions. There’s a lot of information on the internet on ethical practices.

If you’re going to spend your limited time and resources on evaluation, you should get as much as you can out of it. To make the most out of evaluation, you have to commit to it with time and effort. It involves thinking, discussing, planning and digesting. Talk to others and get advice. Seek out resources that can support and help you, like COCo.

Lastly, remember that we owe it to ourselves to know what all our hard work is achieving. In today’s reality, when it’s harder to get everyone’s attention– whether our members, volunteers, donors, or funders– it’s critical that we can talk about the results and impact of our work in a clear and straightforward way. But evaluation is also a way to recognize, value, and celebrate our hard work.

Additional Resources:

Evaluations That Work: What the Non-Profit Sector Can Learn from the Ontario Nonprofit Network and Vibrant Communities

Developing Evaluations that Are Used

Dana Vocisano is an organizational development consultant with 30 years experience in the community, non-profit and philanthropic sectors. In addition to organizational development work with community groups, she does program evaluation and is an Innoweave coach for its Developmental Evaluation module.