In my work with social purpose organizations, I’ve seen that evaluation is often seen as something slightly overwhelming and removed from day-to-day activities. It’s usually that thing that’s done at the end of a program cycle to report something to an external stakeholder, and it’s usually associated with some stress over funding or fear over meeting someone else’s expectations. And yet, the organization is running great, responsive programs and having a significant positive impact on their clients! The impact just isn’t being captured anywhere, because all the time and energy goes into tracking outputs for external stakeholders.
But, as you know all too well, “counting stuff” doesn’t tell the actual story of your organization’s hard work and success. It doesn’t reflect the heart of the organization or the changes you see in the people you work with.
For that, you need to take a courageous leap and look at outcomes and impact. It doesn’t mean a ton of new work; it can be as simple as doing one or two focus groups per year. It can be as simple as changing the questions you ask on your surveys or in interviews with clients.
However, before you change your interview questions or run a focus group, you do need to spend a bit of time thinking about the underlying purpose of your program or service and how that is changing the lives of the recipients. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? How does your organization help people get from A to B? What’s the evidence of improvement that you see? What’s changed at individual, family, community, or systems levels because of your organization?
Being clear on your Theory of Change helps the other pieces fall into place. Then evaluation is no longer something you do because it’s required of you by someone else; instead it’s your way of regularly checking in with your program or service to see whether it’s doing all that you had hoped. Program planning and program evaluation become two parts of a whole.
In this blog, I’m going to write about some fundamental concepts in evaluation using examples from organizations I’ve worked with. In particular, my focus will be on social impact because I see the immense social value being created by organizations in our communities. What is social impact? How do we support it? Why does it matter? But first, what really is “evaluation” all about?