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Tips to Ensuring Your Evaluation is a Learning Tool

It used to be that evaluation was something that happened occasionally, was sometimes required by funders, and could sometimes be useful. Not anymore. When you ask a room full of people who are trying to make a meaningful difference whether they have been part of an evaluation, almost everyone raises their hand. But what that means – being part of an evaluation – differs greatly from person to person.

Evaluation can be about accountability, meeting a funder requirement, or even providing information back to your board. At its best, though, evaluation is about learning – learning what worked, what didn’t, why it didn’t, what to do better next time.


Focusing your evaluation on learning

The earlier you decide to use your evaluation as a learning process, the more likely it is that it will work out that way. As your evaluator is planning the evaluation design, talk to them about what you want to know, what will help you to do good, even better. Try exploring some of the questions below with your evaluator – each of these question may bubble up an important area for learning!

  • Are we implementing a strategy that is new to us, something we’ve never tried before?
  • Is there a strategy we’re implementing in a new way or with a new target population?
  • Is there a strategy we’ve been implementing for years, but never assessed to see if it really makes a difference?
  • Is there information about our external environment that will help us to tailor our strategies and better achieve our outcomes?
  • Is there information about our own organization’s internal capacity that will help us know if we’re ready to implement a strategy?

If these questions do not help you narrow your learning, try filling in the blank on this statement instead:

  • Unless we know ____________________________, we won’t know how to improve our strategy.

Focus your evaluation on both Strategies and Outcomes

This may sound obvious to some of you, but it bears repeating. When we want to learn from our evaluation, we need to understand the relationship between the strategy we are implementing and the outcomes we are achieving. Let’s use some definitions:

Strategy: A defined approach to implementing multiple smaller actions (tactics), which are collectively intended to achieve a particular outcome. Strategies are completely within your control to implement or not implement as you choose.


Outcome: The change you hope to influence as a result of your strategies. It may be a change in people (yourself, your target audience, community members) or even a change in the environment (built environment, health of habitats, etc.). You cannot control whether it occurs, only do your best to influence the change.

Work with your evaluator to make sure that they are capturing the relationship between decisions and actions that are within your control and the outcomes they achieve, those things you can only hope to influence. When your evaluator presents results, telling you whether or not you’ve achieved your outcomes, nothing is worse than not being able to figure out what to change to improve your outcomes.


Intuitive learning matters too!

We’ll talk more about this in another blog coming soon, but here’s the teaser: Your evaluator, no matter how amazing, does not have the intuitive and on-the-ground knowledge of the people implementing the program. Understanding what an evaluation is really telling you means taking into account your intuitive knowledge of what is happening in your program. To learn from an evaluation, you need high quality evaluation results, but you also need to explore what the evaluation results mean with the people who understand your program best, including staff, volunteers, and even consumers.

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Sustainability Planning ~ Realities and Strategies

The great recession and subsequent belt tightening of our funders— from local and federal government to foundations, corporations and individual donors— have created a challenging funding environment for many community based organizations. Yet sustainability, the word de jour of our funders, is inarguably a necessity.

How many times have you applied for funding from a foundation and inevitably, come across the following question on a grant application: “How does your organization plan to sustain its efforts beyond this grant?”


Sustainability Beyond Your Doors

While organizational sustainability is naturally a priority— increasingly, funders and policymakers also want to know how your organization is contributing to the overall sustainability of the system your organization operates within. Despite this upping of the ante, organizational and system sustainability often goes hand-in-hand; similar to bricks and a building—you need one to build the other, but without the vision of the building your bricks would serve no purpose. As a result of growing awareness and knowledge of how organizations function within and contribute to a larger system, there are now some best practices in sustainability planning on a systems level.


Set Your Direction for the Future Together

Including the system in your sustainability planning is about identifying how your organization can contribute to that bigger picture.

Community organizations are often working towards a higher purpose, such as reducing homelessness, and that higher purpose involves sustaining and improving systems of support for a target population, be it children, families, justice-involved juveniles, etc. Systems sustainability planning should include a thoughtful and structured process of meeting with your organization’s key collaborators and developing a road map.

Your systems sustainability roadmap define the direction you will all go together, including such things as:

  1. Increasing community capacity to serve a target population – is cross-training between organizations needed or is one agency using a screening tool that others might want to adopt as well?
  1. Identifying other nonprofits, government entities, businesses that should be at the table to ensure that services are not duplicated and that a continuum of services are available to young children and their families.
  1. Developing strategies to not only recruit those partners, but to meaningfully engage them in the collaborative effort.
  1. Defining clear roles of all the partners involved in collaborative efforts to improve the system through, for example, memorandums of understanding.
  1. Soliciting collaborative partners’ input on how to be good stewards of limited resources by asking specific questions, such as:
    • Are we working with our partners to develop shared staffing models and/ or shared office space? (Thereby reducing overhead and increasing opportunities to collaborate.)
    • Are there opportunities to pursue shared funding? (Opening up the door to additional funding opportunities because we demonstrate a thoughtful multi-partner design for decreasing duplication and meeting gaps in services.)
  1. Engaging funders as partners to address an unmet need by demonstrating that need through data and testimonials.
  1. Developing strategies to engage the public, not only increase awareness of the issue, but to secure the commitment of key policymakers who can help uncover new funding resources or shape policy that will benefit the target population.


This plan should also make the case for additional resources by showing decision-makers that early intervention could ultimately result in long term cost savings to your community. Including these elements in an achievable, collaborative action plan will not only benefit the system, but can demonstrate to your funders how your organization contributes to system sustainability.


Resources for Big Picture Sustainability

A Systems Improvement Training and Technical Assistance Project Toolkit (developed by the Washington D.C. based Institute of Technical Leadership) addresses the challenges experienced by innovative collaborative demonstration projects attempting to scale up and become integrated in larger systems of support for families and children. The Toolkit offers strategies and resources to help sustain emerging collaborative efforts so that they can meaningfully impact the larger system.