Many people think of evaluation as taking a snapshot of outcomes at the end of a program to prove to a funder that it worked or failed. These same people don't hold evaluation in much regard because they feel 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. Evaluation can, and should, however, be used as an ongoing management and learning tool to improve an organization's effectiveness.
Well-run organizations and effective programs are those that can 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 or ordering 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, and the extent to which it 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 evaluation 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 larger-scale, 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 rate or poverty level. In addition, occasionally a manager may 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 evaluation.
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.
Cathy Martinez is the lead evaluation consultant for CenterPoint Institute, a consulting firm serving the nonprofit sector since 1988. CenterPoint Institute is based in suburban Chicago and serves clients that range from local grassroots organizations to national and international organizations and foundations. Martinez's current work includes the National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO)'s partnership with GuideStar to implement the NASCOnet secure environment for state charity officials' work, a W. K. Kellogg Foundation study of grantees that have developed tools to improve nonprofit and foundation effectiveness, and an assessment of training needs for after-school care providers.