You Think You’re Making a Difference…But Are You?

Nonprofit leaders and volunteers are passionate, busy people. There is so much to be done and in many understaffed and under-resourced organizations, not enough time or money with which to do it. Clients need to be seen, grants need to be written, board members need to be informed, staff needs to be managed…and the list goes on. 

But while everyone is busy with the day-to-day work of running the organization and its programs, who is paying attention to how these programs are being managed & implemented? Who is looking at the impact of these programs on the intended client base or the broader community? How does the nonprofit leader know if the services being provided are reaching the intended clientele? How does the board of directors know if the organization’s outputs are translating into the desired outcomes in the strategic plan? 

You probably know where this conversation is heading. So, before you give me the side-eye and tell me there’s no time left in your day to think about nonprofit program evaluation, just hear me out. I swear, it’s one of the best things you can do for your organization.

Everyone in leadership and management should know and understand the importance of conducting regular nonprofit program evaluations. These are periodic reviews that nonprofits use to determine the efficacy of specific programs, the efficiency of fiscal strategies, and/or to answer critical questions about the organization and its work. Nonprofit evaluations are key to understanding how well programs are being run and, equally importantly, what impact an organization’s programs have in relation to their goals and objectives.  

A lot can be learned from regular program evaluations, and this is why I recommend them for looking at everything from individual fundraising efforts to year-end outcomes. And while there is no single model for conducting a nonprofit program evaluation, there are two main types to keep in mind: 

Process-Based Evaluations – This type of evaluation is used to measure and analyze program implementation. Process evaluations allow nonprofit leaders to understand and assess program outputs, costs, and efficiency of service delivery. These evaluations look at what and how much is being done, what the program/service costs to deliver, how many clients are being served, and what problems have been encountered during service delivery. Process evaluations allow nonprofit leaders to understand the how and how much of their work so they can make improvements in process and efficiency as needed. 

Outcomes-Based Evaluations – This type of evaluation is used to measure and analyze program results and effectiveness. Outcome evaluations allow nonprofit leaders to understand the impact of their services or programs on their intended client base or the broader community. If done consistently over time, outcomes-based evaluations can be extremely valuable in the evolution and growth of a nonprofit organization, particularly as it relates to attracting and retaining larger sources of funding. 

While process evaluations are valuable tools for internal use – particularly for helping organizations become more efficient and effective in their program implementation – outcome evaluations enable organizations to understand their impact and demonstrate their value to the broader community. 

Regardless of your organization’s size or age, every nonprofit leader should conduct process and outcomes evaluations at least annually as an exercise in good nonprofit management.  To do this effectively, evaluation should be built into your strategic and annual plans from the very beginning.  Creating your organizational plans with evaluation in mind enables you to identify what data you will need to track to successfully evaluate when the time comes. For example, if your strategic plan calls for expansion of your services into a new geographic market, an evaluation-proactive approach might dictate the collection of zip code data in your client intake process so that the expansion’s success can be analyzed. 

Nonprofit program evaluation may seem like a daunting task, especially for under-resourced and understaffed nonprofits already operating on shoe-string budgets. But at the end of the day, program evaluation is key to ensuring your organization is functioning efficiently, effectively, and in alignment with its mission, goals, and objectives. Treating program evaluation as part of your overall program creation and implementation cycle is one of the best ways to set your organization up for long-term success, attract more of your target population, and make your nonprofit more attractive to donors and grant funders.