Amanda Babine and Hannah Jacobson
Not all nonprofits are good, and many are just mediocre. What is more frightening is that many organizations are unsure which they are. This uncertainty often comes from a lack of tracking and evaluating outcomes for their programs. There are many reasons nonprofits don’t use data and evaluation, such as a lack of staff, time, and resources. Organizations often believe the first step in implementing an evaluation is obtaining the expertise and knowledge to do so. However, for these skills to be successfully implemented, we must address the underlying fear associated with data, for example, being told their program is a failure. Through operational issues or emotional fears, many organizations have stalled on the process of measuring their impact.
While some nonprofits welcome the idea of evaluation, others have been pressured to implement it. Many funders have started requesting or demanding that current or potential future fundees report on the outcomes of their programs. Following this lead, the fundraising field has been pushing people to participate in “informed giving.” One component of this includes making sure the agencies you are donating to have stellar results. In a generation where starting a nonprofit is easier and faster than ever, with no regulatory body to hold nonprofits accountable for their outcomes, funders and donors have moved to being more strategic when giving.
How can you use evaluation to become more attractive to funders and donors? The major shift to define your organization as a leader in evaluation requires two values: Commitment and Capacity. Without a clear commitment from an organization at all levels, evaluations often fail. An evaluation is NOT a simple task, but rather an ongoing project. Also, consider the capacity of your organization. Do you have the skills, time and resources needed to become data-driven and results-oriented? To shift your organization’s mindset, you need buy-in from each level of your agency in building the capacity needed to truly follow through with your commitment to authentic evaluation.
Let’s further explore what these two values mean for your organization. How can you as a professional leverage your nonprofit? First, focus on obtaining agency buy-in. You want to convince all levels of your organization from ground level staff to Executive Boards/Directors. To do this, think about how to propose this new evaluation initiative. For example, let’s consider an education nonprofit that partners with a local school to conduct afterschool tutoring. They will need to convince the tutors, teachers, education administration and the executive director that measuring their success will be beneficial. Thinking of people individually will enhance your pitch and help get more individuals on board.
A second strategy is to make data-driven practices a part of your organizational culture. Implement outcome-driven measures into daily conversations and practices. Considering that same educational nonprofit: instead of only measuring annual progress, implement measurements throughout the academic year. Empower all staff to think purposefully about working towards the same vision. Make data-driven conversations routine at all meetings, check-ins and discussions of effective programming. Shifting your culture to becoming evaluation based will strip the fear out of the employees and elevate your work to focusing on successful outcomes.
Together with commitment from your organization, you will need to be realistic about the capacity of your organization. Consider the amount of knowledge, work, time, resources and energy your nonprofit has to offer. Are you able to create a genuine evaluation in-house or do you need to hire a consultant? As you already know, most nonprofits are stretched thin with most employees acting as a jack of all trades in their work. Thoughtfully decide who can do what with your current resources and creatively think about ways to become data-driven. Determining capacity is an individualized decision process for which you as professionals have the ultimate discretion and decision-making power.
For example, consider a nonprofit with a staff member who has a heavy workload, but the knowledge to implement a basic evaluation. The nonprofit’s best course of action is to shift a project or two to another employee, giving the knowledgeable team member the time he/she needs to become a resource for the organization as a whole. Often agencies already have someone with baseline skills that can be developed – think about sending that person to workshops or conferences so that you don’t have to rely heavily on consultants. This not only saves money in the long run, but helps empower your staff and gives them leadership opportunities, which will build ownership and investment, pushing your organization to the next level. Building the capacity of your nonprofit from within also helps strengthen your organizational culture.
USING DATA TO ATTRACT FUNDERS
Before getting to the nuts and bolts, let’s go back to our purpose: How can you use evaluation to become more attractive to funders and donors? This evaluation cycle will make your case for funding compelling, all through the use of data.
The Assessment Phase sets the stage for a successful evaluation. Take a closer look at how your mission and vision relate to your desired outcomes. This is often done through conducting logic models which help you figure out what your inputs, outputs and outcomes are.
Lesson One: Many organizations skip this step. They think they already know what their organizations do and how they do it. Taking the time to write out your organization’s needs, goals and wants will ensure you have a vision that matches up with what you are measuring.
In the Design Phase, organizations set a clear evaluation agenda describing how things will be measured, including methodology, measurement tools, and databases. It also includes how you will implement the evaluation, team members’ roles and responsibilities, and what type of results you will be focusing on and how you will share them.
Lesson Two: With data being so trendy now, people often think they need to use the fanciest technology and advanced methods. We suggest organizations new to evaluation should start off with something more basic. If you’re making a real impact, it doesn’t always matter that you have the most complex 3D graphs.
The Implementation Phase is often the longest and most draining phase of an evaluation. Collecting data, conducting interviews, entering surveys, and transcribing focus groups takes a lot of time and energy. It also includes checking in and making sure timelines are being met and data is collected correctly.
Lesson Three: Organizations often forget to check in regularly to see how the data collection is coming along. Sometimes you must pivot or change the direction of an evaluation to ensure you get the best and most ethical data possible. You can only do this by making sure you have benchmarks set up for continuous improvement.
In the Analysis Phase, you take the data you collected and turn it into something useful. Analysis includes crunching the numbers and presenting that information to the world. Clear and strategic storytelling is key to making sure that your data is received the way you want it to be.
Lesson Four: Audience: data presentation should be based on who is reading it. While a Board of Directors may find a 20-page report important, individual donors don’t have time for a document like that, so create one-page snapshots or easy on the eyes infographics.
In determining what a nonprofit needs to know to make itself more attractive to donors/foundations, the key is to authentically shift the mindset of your organization to become data-driven. To do that, you first need commitment and capacity within your organization, then implementation of a thoughtful and strategic evaluation. This will make your case for funding and showcase your true impact in making a difference in the communities and people you serve.
Amanda Babine is the Director of Evaluate for Change, a program evaluation company training nonprofits in implementing evaluation. She has worked in the nonprofit field in direct practice and research, including evaluating citywide programs with Columbia University and the City University of New York, and at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, developing a youth well-being framework while conducting Participatory Action Research (PAR) with marginalized communities throughout New York City.
Hannah Jacobson is an Evaluation Trainer at Evaluate for Change, focused on creating and delivering curriculum around evaluation for educational professionals; a special education Math teacher; and a fellow at the Urban Teacher Center. Her passion is measuring student success through a variety of evaluation measures.
This article is reprinted from Issue #4 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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