Many agree that evaluations are important, whether one works in development, humanitarian work, advocacy, civil society building or social enterprise development. Yet the attention given to evaluations does not often match its significance and various challenges, such as lack of technical capacity, inadequate resources, and lack of use of evaluation results often call into question both the value and feasibility of evaluations. This blog sets out to share some insights on system wide and organizational practices and principles that are central to ensuring that nonprofits conduct evaluations successfully.
I have learnt that for evaluations to be successful, the organization’s leadership needs to be committed to conducting evaluations and actually learning from them. Such commitment needs to be demonstrated by allocating adequate resources (staff, budget and time) to evaluation efforts. Organizations that have a specialized research and evaluation function are more likely to conduct evaluations in a timely and consistent manner.
Make your work evidence based
Evidence based work is the practice of basing decisions on objective information. Evidence can be used to establish the need for a project, evidence can be used to support strategy and interventions and evidence can also be used to show the achievement of desired outcomes and impact. As organizations make their work more evidence based, evaluations become one of the major sources of much needed information on what works and what does not.
Think about evaluation early
Evaluations need to be integrated into program planning. As projects are being proposed and negotiated with funders, evaluations must be included. This means we have to be clear how we are defining impact and success, how the data will be collected throughout the project cycle and how the results will be compared to demonstrate impact. Thinking about evaluation early also means agreeing with donors and stakeholders on what can be measured and what cannot.
Some evaluations are conducted for their own sake and good looking evaluation reports end up on the shelf, accumulating dust. Evaluation results are not even used and recommendations are ignored. To address this it is important to ensure that all the relevant stakeholders are involved in the evaluation and that they own and use the results for learning and future planning. These stakeholders need to be identified and then involved in planning the evaluation. Stakeholder involvement will ensure that evaluation findings are of interest and relevant to everyone concerned.
Get your methods right
I have seen entire evaluation results being rubbished because the evaluators did not get their methodology right. Inappropriate data collection and analysis methodologies have often rendered evaluation findings problematic and not credible. I have learnt that having skilled and experienced personnel for the evaluation is the first and major step towards achieving technically sound evaluations.
What if resources are not enough?
This is the most commonly cited excuse for not conducting comprehensive evaluations. When financial resources are not enough for a large external evaluation, nonprofits can explore various ways of working with limited resources. These include using staff and volunteers to collect and enter data while an external expert designs the data collection tools and conducts key informant interviews and focus group discussions. Another strategy involves systematically collecting and analyzing data during program implementation so that there is no need for a separate and costly data collection exercise when it is time to for the evaluation.
An evaluation is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Evaluations, if conducted properly are a great resource for learning, for innovation, for making an investment case and for growth. Nonprofit work in increasingly becoming more diverse and the need for data driven decisions is growing. Evaluations provide such crucial data for decision making.