Why Nonprofits Should NOT do Program Evaluation
Updated: Aug 29
This is a guest blog by Maryfrances Porter from Partnerships for Strategic Impact
In the early 2000’s, I took my brand-new, fancy-pants PhD and started consulting with nonprofits doing program evaluation. Immediately I found that what I learned in graduate school just wasn’t useful in the real life, day to day of nonprofits. The scientific method just didn’t fit the budget, the mission, or the needs of nonprofits in the complex, day-to-day work of providing critical services.
What the nonprofits I worked with needed was actionable data: real-time access to key data for monitoring client progress, staff performance, program efficacy, and which make it easy to tell clear, confident, and convincing stories to funders and other stakeholders.
Stop trying to do the impossible
Program evaluation. A presumed but elusive necessity. Even if it’s something you’re really interested in doing, you likely have a only vanishing idea about how to approach it (and vanishing time to do it in)! Or: maybe you’re drowning in data, but you’re not even sure it’s the right data, or how to use it.
Over the last 20 years I’ve discovered nonprofits (and their funders) SHOULD NOT to do program evaluation. It’s not your mission and you’re not a scientist.
3 Straightforward Steps to Actionable Data
I haven’t found any structures or templates for how to track and use actionable data, so I created one.
The ImpactStory Strategy is based in science, but it’s transformed to be straightforward and sustainable for small- and medium-sized nonprofits. Ultimately, it’s no harder than managing your budget.
Step 1 – Getting Clear
The first things you need to do are (a) to write out the immediate impact clients get from participating in each of your programs – what do they walk out of the door with, and (b) gather some high-quality, publicly available research that supports why your programming is a good idea. The ImpactStory Resource Library is a great place to start looking for resources!
Step 2 – Being Confident
Once you’ve homed in on the immediate impact you expect clients to walk out of the door with, you need to capture that in data form. If you think about it, there are only a handful of things clients can possibly get from working with a nonprofit: achievements (things you see them accomplish while they are working with you), knowledge and skills (things they learn while working with you), and access/ability (things they now can do that they couldn’t do before). They will also need confidence and motivation to put these new things into action in order to reach their long-term goals. And, because it’s both equitable and smart, you should find out if they felt connected to and liked your services.
Once you have collected these data, most nonprofits only need a handful of Excel formulas and two graphs to analyze the data and answer their questions about impact. A Learning and Insight Team works to equitably understand the data and to recommend inclusive actions to improve outcomes.
Step 3 – Being Convincing
Most social sector leaders are unsure how to use data in storytelling. But it comes down to two things: (a) learning the basics of data visualization and data storytelling so you can create graphs and images that are powerful and easily digestible, and (b) learning how to masterfully marry those graphs and images with the client narratives that you know draw people in.
What do you need to set this up?
That’s what you learn in the ImpactStory Academy.
"Just before the Academy, I was given a promotion and didn’t know all it was going to entail yet. Every session there was something where I thought, “Oh gosh, I can take this and run with this.” Everything was very accessible and I’ve been immediately able to turn it into action and productivity."
– Randy Rogers, Assistant Director of Operations, Jefferson Area Board on Aging