Good evaluation depends on integration. Integration with what? Integration into the daily and ongoing work of organizations dedicated to addressing pressing social problems and bringing about social change.
Evaluation is fundamentally about learning, and it involves much more than just collecting, analyzing and reporting on data. It is not just about accountability; nor is it just about proving assumptions. Yes, for evaluation you need good data—and I would argue, multiple types of data. And yes, evaluation can also help ensure accountability and establish cause and effect. But at its core, evaluation should support learning, and learning should be an integral part of doing social change work. Evaluation is not an add-on—something to do from time to time, only when there is special funding or spare time—and who has spare time anyway.
From working with scores of nonprofits and foundations over the years, I have found that evaluation efforts are most valuable when they are integrated into an organization’s routine practices. For example, developing measurement metrics for both the short and longer term is as essential to the process of planning for new or expanded programming as determining how you are going to staff the efforts. Data collection activities are best incorporated into the ongoing procedures and tools that a program uses. Furthermore, reflecting on the implications of data analysis is not just an activity for funders or board members. Program staff need access to information as well as time scheduled into their regular staff and program meetings to review the information and consider what it tells them about their accomplishments and where they can make adjustments to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
Of course, there is a time and place for independent, third-party evaluations to demonstrate the efficacy of program models and approaches. Likewise, there is great work going on right now in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors to create shared measurement metrics and knowledge-sharing platforms. These are important pieces of work and should continue to be encouraged, but they should punctuate the daily practices of most nonprofit organizations, rather than be the norm.
The source of the greatest innovation potential in the nonprofit sector is not from external sources but from within the very programs and organizations that are doing the social change work and are dedicating their time, energy and passions to improve the lives of individuals and communities each and every day. These are the people who need tools and processes—i.e., good evaluation—that will support their exploration and creativity and help to unleash that potential.