The first question I ask every nonprofit I work with is – What makes your organization stand out from the rest? I’ve heard hundreds of nonprofit leaders, program managers, and development directors struggle to answer this question. This is the single most important question any nonprofit can answer for themselves, the people they serve, and the donors and funders who support their work.
The only way to truly answer this question is to build the infrastructure to understand, measure, and communicate the value of your nonprofit’s programming. You do this by embedding the ability to measure your program’s outcomes into the actual delivery of your program – or in other words – boost your internal capacity for ongoing nonprofit program evaluation.
Many leaders resistant to program evaluation hold one of seven limiting beliefs about program evaluation. Do you?
1. The purpose of evaluation is solely to satisfy funders.
WRONG. The purpose of collecting data is for your clients. Period. You exist to do good in the world – and collecting data helps you excel at that good.
2. Good data collection infrastructure is too expensive for my organization.
You are right in that there is a world that exists where nonprofits pay a bunch of money for fancy software to collect all the data, that at the end of the day – tells them exactly nothing about how to improve their programming. We call this ‘drowning in data’ – all of the data, lots of infrastructure, and at the end it’s not necessarily all data you can work with. Selecting the right data points, integrating them into the delivery of your program – pairing them with things you already do, and leveraging a few of the hundreds free and low-cost tools to do so makes data collection infrastructure virtually free.
3. We can’t do evaluation because we don’t have / can’t afford an evaluation expert.
Bringing an evaluator in usually comes with a ticket price that starts at 20K, and goes all the way up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is a right time and place for this – but for small to medium sized organizations there is a pathway to build data collection and metrics in a way that you have the capacity to manage. If you choose to hire a professional evaluator one day – you can do so – but in the meantime, you can have the numbers that matter at your fingertips.
4. If I do actual evaluation and the result is that my program isn’t working as intended, my funding will get cut.
When you use data to understand what’s not working as intended, you gain the power to fix it. This kind of self-awareness and sophistication makes you stand out to funders even more. Also – you are a nonprofit and if your programming isn’t working, you have a responsibility to your clients and your donors to do something about it. This program will give you the power to do that.
5. It doesn’t matter how much data we collect; it will never tell the true story of my organization.
When we say the word data – we’re not just talking about numbers. We’re talking about people, and their stories. Telling the impact of your program through stories, with numbers to back it up, is the cornerstone of what makes this program effective.
6. We don’t have time to add extra work.
This is our favorite one – the concept that program improvement practices is extra work. Think about all the time you and your employees spend trying to make your programming stand out. Think of all the time that your employees spend gathering internal data to use for marketing, or your annual report, or in your grant reports. While your team will be meeting every week for eight weeks to elevate your impact through e-Value8, at the end of that time you will have streamlined everything you need to report, market, and communicate about your program. When you streamline – you actually gain time, and when you stand out to funders, you gain money. It’s a no brainer.
7. I don’t see why program evaluation is important to actually providing the services / doing the work.
In order to achieve true excellence in the work your organization does, you have to get out of the mindset of tying your data collection and evaluation to solely funding, and get into the mindset of how to use data to be the best at providing your services and doing the work. Program managers and staff cannot be excellent if they are not learning from their work today and applying it to their work tomorrow.
When you can understand, measure, and communicate the value of your programs, you can deliver better services and ultimately – stand out to funders.
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