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The Gold Standard

By Kris Helé

For the past two weeks, the greatest athletes in the world competed on the world’s greatest stage. The lion’s share of more than 3,500 hours of live Olympic coverage focused on the thrill of victory, the medal count and the athletes who overcame considerable obstacles to excel in their respective sports. So why can’t I stop thinking about the agony of defeat?

When I watched the Olympics, I could hardly celebrate the record-breaking races, nearly perfect routines and beautiful goals because I felt so terrible for the contenders who were punished for a tiny mistake, dropped out due to injury, or simply finished one-hundredth of a second too late. After years and years of rigorous training, their dreams were dashed in an instant.

Don’t get me wrong, I love competition, and the extremely high stakes are what make the Olympics so exciting and the medals so prestigious. But when it comes to what I think about in my day-to-day work, evaluating nonprofit and philanthropic programs, the do-or-die mentality of the Olympics is unacceptable.

Ideally evaluation is used to inform decision making, including whether to continue to fund a program and with what degree of support. But if an evaluation captures only a snapshot in time, like the Olympic Games, an effective program runs the risk of defeat if it does not show well on game day, despite intensive effort and positive outcomes overall. With one snap judgment, a great program may be stripped of the support it needs to function effectively, or even cut entirely.

The law of multiples in evaluation—multiple points in time for data collection, multiple methods and multiple perspectives—helps ensure that deserving programs are recognized and continue to reach the populations that rely on them.