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Discovering Your Evaluation Capacity

By Jennifer Curry Villeneuve

Calls for more and better evidence of programmatic outcomes echo through the nonprofit and philanthropic world. These appeals get louder with the intersection of increased needs in the community during tight economic times and the pressures to accomplish more with fewer resources. When planned and implemented well, evaluation can address the important questions of how supports are used and their impact, while also increasing an organization’s ability to refine and strengthen program goals and implementation towards more effective and efficient practice. In addition, high quality evaluation can inform future work.

A primary priority for evaluation is to decide what matters most to the organization or program being evaluated through the process of determining a learning agenda. Next is the process of deciding who can best inform the process before settling on how and when to collect  information, analyze findings and plan for using the results in the organization. Before planning  evaluation activities, though, it is important to keep in mind that while learning through the evaluation process can reap all the benefits listed above, organizations vary greatly in their readiness and capacity for conducting meaningful evaluation activities. Determining one’s capacity and readiness is extremely important and should come first.

Informing Change recently developed and tested an Evaluation Capacity Diagnostic Tool, which is designed to help organizations assess their readiness to take on many types of evaluation activities. It captures information on organizational context and the evaluation experience of staff. The tool has multiple uses, including pinpointing particularly strong areas of capacity as well as areas for improvement and can calibrate changes over time in an organization’s evaluation capacity. In addition, the process of asking questions about capacity can lead to staff brainstorming about how their organization can enhance evaluation capacity by building on existing evaluation experience and skills.

Two major components constitute the assessment of an organization’s readiness and capacity for evaluation: Organizational context and staff experience with evaluation. Each  contributes in different ways to determining appropriate levels of readiness, and thus determining “right size” evaluation activities.

Organizational Context. First and foremost in determining an organization’s ability to learn from its evaluation efforts is assessing the organizational culture and practices related to learning and reflection. An organization needs more than commitment, interest and experience;  resources for evaluation such as time, appropriate staff roles and responsibilities and on-going support for evaluation contribute greatly to ensuring that learning is integrated into everyday operations.

Staff Experience with Evaluation. Clearly related to an organization’s ability to conduct evaluation is having a basic understanding of evaluation. This experience can range from designing data collection processes to possessing the analytical skills to make connections between evaluation findings and programmatic intentions.

While the sense of urgency to provide more and better evidence of programmatic outcomes and impact grows, evaluation and other form of organizational learning are valuable tools that can inform planning and operations alike. But, like any tool, getting the most out of it is highly correlated with being ready and knowing how to use it effectively and efficiently. That’s where Informing Change can help.

For more information on Informing Change’s diagnostic tool, please contact us.