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Sustaining Evaluation Starts With Culture and Leadership

pegsIn our last post, we reflected on the importance of evaluation to ensuring an organization’s overall sustainability. Our question was: what can organizations do to build and sustain their evaluation capacity?

This question has been the focus of our recent work with the Connecticut Association for Housing Services (CAHS) and CASA de Maryland (CASA), two organizations that had come to recognize that evaluation capacity was about more than collecting some good data.

As Mario Morino, author of Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, recently noted at an Urban Institute symposium, “[managing to outcomes] is about… the people and strong leadership who have the culture and desire to collect and use information as the basis for continually improving what you are doing.”

It became overwhelmingly evident in our work with CAHS and CASA that sustaining capacity for evaluation starts with culture – the values, norms, and behaviors of an organization. And to infuse evaluation into a culture, you have to change the underlying beliefs of your organization, the rules that guide behaviors, and, ultimately, the actions that people take on a daily basis.

We have identified a few best practices that can help inculcate a commitment to evaluation into an organization’s norms and behaviors.

  • Start with a visible commitment from senKanterior leadership. You will only change norms and behaviors when your executive leadership commits to using data to inform decisions and “walks the walk” themselves. At CASA, many staff members, long resistant to the idea of
  • onducting more rigorous evaluation, came to support evaluation work once the Executive Director and Board of Directors strongly emphasized its importance.
  • Promote a sense of shared ownership and transparency in the evaluation process among all staff. Your leadership needs to engage all staff in the process of building, using, and improving evaluation processes. Moreover, staff members at all levels should be held accountable to using results to make their own data-driven decisions.
  • Infuse a commitment to evaluation into the strategic and operational plans of an organization. All of the documents that guide an organization – strategic plans, operational plans, job descriptions, Board reports, etc. – should reflect a commitment to data collection and accountability to data-driven decision-making.


CAHS and CASA have embraced these lessons and have already seen the tides of their organizations’ cultures shift towards a stronger commitment to evaluation.  A few operational improvements have reinforced this transformation and are important tips to keep in mind:

  • Designate an internal champion for evaluation. It is critical to have a part or full-time staff member who not only understands how to structure an evaluation system but also can continuously push to establish a learning culture. Ideally, this person will report to the Executive Director or CEO.  At CAHS, Executive Director Jim Horan credits his organization’s tremendous progress in building a culture of evaluation to their new Director of Community Research, Sheryl Horowitz. “Without Sheryl’s determination and expertise,” said Jim recently, “we never could have developed the level of support and functional system for evaluation that we have now.”
  • Develop a simple metrics dashboard that is accessible to all stakeholders. Promote a sense of shared ownership and transparency by developing a common metrics dashboard that is simple and easily used by all staff and other stakeholders. The key is to distill the complexities of evaluation work into what really matters most for an organization and drives it decisions.
  • Continually provide training to staff on how to collect and use data. To ensure sustainability of your evaluation work, you cannot just rely on a single expert or one training session with your staff.  Rather, you need to build a critical mass of evaluation expertise among all staff that can assure continuity and accuracy in the maintenance and usage of evaluation data. This collective expertise can only be nurtured through continual engagement and training of staff.

Of course, building your capacity for evaluation requires money: How can an organization build the culture and systems it needs to sustain evaluation when it doesn’t have the financial support in the first place?

You have to start somewhere. Start small, build some evidence, demonstrate a culture of transparency and learning, and sell this to funders and other critical stakeholders. With enough diligence and persistence, the mantra “if you build it, they will come” will hold true. Stay tuned for more on how to engage stakeholders in your evaluation work the next post of this series.

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Alix Wilson

About Alix Wilson

In her role as Senior Director and Chief Strategy Officer, Alix oversees complex client engagements, builds the firms consulting business and plays a lead role in developing and implementing the firm’s strategy to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. Alix has extensive experience partnering with and building early stage and rapidly growing entrepreneurial organizations and movements in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. She has deep experience in education, health and poverty both domestically and internationally.See Alix’s full bio

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