Illustration of writing an article on a laptop

ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Strengthening program evaluation in your nonprofit

Illustration of checklist

As nonprofits attempt to tackle some of our communities' most difficult problems; funders, government agencies and the general public are actively calling for accountability, transparency and proof that a program is producing change. This call spurred the increasing demand for program evaluation.

Nonprofit leaders have heard the call but are struggling to meet expectations due to a lack of basic resources, expertise and support. In your organization, this may look like negative attitudes toward evaluation, poor research designs and collecting data but not using the data. The root problem here is poor evaluation capacity.

                                             Evaluation Capacity = ability to do and use evaluations

The key to achieving more effective evaluation and overcoming these challenges is evaluation capacity building (ECB).

Guide to building evaluation capacity

ECB involves a series of steps taken by an evaluator (internal or external) to build evaluative knowledge and skills, create a culture of continuous learning and accountability, and make resources readily available.

Assess the organizational context

Make sure your organization is ready for capacity building. Some things to consider include:

  • What resources (technology, space, materials, time, finances, etc.) are available?
  • Does the staff have any evaluation experience?
  • What attitudes toward evaluation are present?
  • What level of interest and incentives to learn and implement evaluation are present?
  • Does the environment support change, accountability, and communication?
  • What does the decision making and organizational structure look like?

Identify champions and people to work with

These are the people who will get the ECB ball rolling and actively manage the ECB process. Champions are important for creating cultural change and developing an understanding and interest for evaluation within your organization. Consider using your executive director. Then create an advisory group to steer the process. A committee should include:

  • Evaluation champions that supply enthusiasm and technical know-how
  • People who understand or intuitively value evaluation
  • Staff who know the program, the people, and the culture well
  • Staff with position, rank, or experience
  • Someone with a sense of humor who can see the big-picture to promote a positive environment and ground the experience.

Determine how you will foster participation

The evaluator takes on many roles: facilitator, technical expert, and sometimes a shoulder to cry. But the key to success in ECB is participation. So the evaluator has to consider if they are going to:

  • Teach
  • Model
  • Coach

Create a written plan

This plan will guide the process for all the participants. A plan should:

  • Establish goals, objectives, and clear roles;
  • Generate relevant policies and procedures for the process and integrate evaluation into current organizational policies and procedures;
  • Discuss effective communication and reporting strategies;
  • Devise incentives for participation;
  • Consider where (physically or virtually), how (what mode of instruction), and when (the timing) of ECB will take place.

Implement ECB strategies

Drawing from adult learning theories, ECB utilizes a variety of strategies such as:

  • Vehicle of instruction: face-to-face meetings, teleconferences, classroom style learning, web-based mechanisms, manuals, etc.
  • Learning strategies: workshops, communities of practice, peer learning, involvement in evaluations, appreciative inquiry, written materials, technical assistance, coaching, meetings, online resources, etc.
  • Effective communication, feedback, and engagement of stakeholders.

Evaluate ECB efforts

After “talking the talk,” it’s time for evaluators to also “walk the walk” by evaluating the ECB process itself. You need to assess the process’ own outcomes and effectiveness. Answer questions like:

  • Did participants’ attitudes, knowledge and skills change?
  • Has the organization embraced policies, resources and a culture that supports evaluation?
  • What worked for whom and under what conditions?

You can start off smart, but you must start somewhere

When looking at your organization’s context, you may come to find that you are not ready for ECB. That does not mean it’s the end of the road. You can start creating the right environment by finding evaluation champions, creating an interest and desire for evaluation within your organization, planning out resources and finding ways to connect evaluation with career promotion or other reinforcers.

Explore possibilities for partnerships

Evaluation can be a daunting experience, but you don’t have to go at it alone. Consider reaching out to local universities to tap into departments, professors, and students for consulting, resources, and education. You may also consider connecting with other nonprofits that share similar missions to form a coalition. Work together to learn about evaluation, design studies, strengthen each other and celebrate successes.

Invest in your evaluation capacity

By following these steps, your organization can replace poor capacity with self-sufficiency, self-determination, and empowerment. Investing in evaluation capacity means investing in your ability to share your story, improve your programs, hear from stakeholders, communicate, attract funders and promote critical thinking and creativity. In this way you can use your evaluation capacity to strengthen your social impact.

“The ultimate goal is not for program evaluation to be punitive, but empowering”
- Jordan Lim

Veera Tervola Morrison  is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She earned a Bachelor’s in both Psychology and Anthropology from the University of Central Florida. It was an internship at a free mental health clinic that led her to the nonprofit sector, where she immediately knew she had found her passion. Veera now seeks a future in nonprofit consulting and evaluation with the hopes of empowering organizations to more effectively achieve their missions.

For more information on program evaluation, consider our Nonprofit Management Institute's Social Impact Measurement Certificate.


ASU Lodestar Center Blog