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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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Braiding Your Funds: Tips and Tools

Braided funding is when you use multiple funding streams utilized to pay for all of the services needed by a given population, with careful accounting of how every dollar from each funding stream is spent. This blog will introduce you to a “Coordinated Finance Plan” – a tool for designing a braided funding approach that is streamlined and audit-ready.

What is a Coordinated Financing Plan?

A coordinated financing plan is:

  • A tool for talking with your funders so they can clearly understand the design of your braided system.
  • A tool to help your programmatic staff, your fiscal staff, and your board understand how and why each decision is being made.
  • A method for increasing the likelihood that every dollar of your funding is being used appropriately, including that blending or braiding multiple funding streams will not result in supplanting.

 

Part 1: The Program Budget and Cost Allocation

The program budget is the easy part. But what’s a cost allocation plan? This is the tool that will bring your budget to life and turn it into a braided or blended model.

  • If you are blending your funding, the cost allocation plan is a static budget that you can set in advance. Your priority will be to make sure you track sufficient information on eligibility and outcomes to report back to your funders.
  • If you are braiding your funding, the cost allocation plan is a flexible budget and accounting tool that tracks spend down across your funding streams.

Cost allocation plans in a braiding context are living documents that begin with estimations, but help you keep track of how you can flexibly allocate resources to meet monthly needs, based on eligible populations and services. In essence, the cost allocation plan provides you with upfront information to ensure you can cover all your expenses across all your funding streams and ongoing information on the progress of spending down your funding streams.

Want a tool to help you design your cost allocation plan? Go to: http://sparkpolicy.com/fiscalguides.htm#Guide1. Our team also has experience helping with this, so feel free to give us a call: 303-455-1740.

 

What does a Front Door/Back Door have to do with finances?

Just as in a grocery store, your program has a door people come through on their way in, and another one they exit on the way out. In a program, that backdoor is also where decisions are documented about the finances will be spent. Let’s break this down:

Front Door


At the Front Door, you will be identifying how eligibility and allowability are determined.

  • Eligibility refers to the clients who will be eligible for some or all of the services provided by your blended or braided model.
  • Allowability refers to the services that each client will be allowed to receive, based on their eligibility.

Questions to answer when you design the front door of your program include things like:

  • Who is responsible for determining eligibility? In other words, who has the tools and authority to decide whether a client should be accepted in your program?
  • Who is responsible for determining allowability? In other words, who has the tools and authority to decide which services are options for a new client in your program?
  • What is the protocol for turning clients away? In other words, what referrals or other supports can you offer as you reject a client who does not meet your criteria for eligibility?
  • How will you document eligibility and allowability? Where will the documentation live and when and how will it be used to make decisions along the way?

 

Back Door


At the Back Door, you will be identifying how allocation of costs to funding streams will be determined. The Back Door is responsible for making sure that all allowable services are paid for by appropriate funding streams, with appropriate services as defined by the eligibility and allowability of the clients. Additionally, the Back Door is responsible for maintaining appropriate spend-down across the funding streams, using a protocol designed to guide them. The protocol should also help the Back Door staff understand which funding streams to use first.

Some of the questions to answer when you design the back door of your program include things like:

  • Which funding streams need to be spent down steadily?
  • Which funding streams should be used whenever possible?
  • Which funding stream should be used as a last resort?

 

Keeping Track

Yes, this is where we discuss everyone’s favorite thing to do – document, document, document. While tracking how time and money are used is not a fun thing, it also doesn’t have to be as painful as we sometimes make it.

One of the critical components to a successful braided model, particularly a model that includes funding streams that fall under the federal OMB Circular A-87 (see Appendix A of the fiscal guide, link below), is to track personnel time by eligible populations/allowable services. To ensure the Back Door has enough information to allocate staff time to appropriate funding streams, all of the staff paid for through the braided model should keep time sheets that indicate the case ID of the client served and time spent on that client. If a staff person engages in non-service delivery activities, the staff person should also have a place on their timesheet for the major categories of activities, defined by what is allowable across the funding streams.

While you need this type of tracking system, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to create a system that is:

(1) As simple as you can get away with, only collecting exactly what you need to know. For example, if staff is tracking time spent, have them use a checkbox of options instead of open-ended notes. This simplifies for both the staff tracking time and the staff using the information for billing purposes.
(2) As flexible as possible, not programmed into rigid databases and complex accounting systems. Funding streams can and will change over time, whether due to your existing funding streams changing regulations or new funding streams being secured. Don’t create a system that is difficult to change over time. Be flexible, use easy to adapt tools like Excel, Word, Adobe Forms, Google Forms, etc.

You also need to keep track of your money – setting up your financial systems to have the same categories as those that your funders require you to report. Make sure your financial system aligns as closely as possible with your Front Door and Back Door plans. Don’t create any extra complexity in anything you do.

Want more information on how to build your front door and back door models and keep track? Visit: http://sparkpolicy.com/fiscalguides.htm#Guide1.

 

Align, Simplify, and be Flexible.

If you take nothing else away from this blog, remember these three terms and apply them to how you braid multiple funding streams. Align activities throughout your program, from how program staff check and document eligibility to how financial staff report to funders and track in their accounting systems. This will simplify everyone’s experience, from program staff to administrators to support staff. Don’t use rigid tools that make it hard to change and adapt with time – always remain flexible.