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Before Fundraising, Focus on the Case for Evaluation

This is the third in a three part series of posts exploring the key ingredients for sustaining an organization’s evaluation capacity.

We underscored in our last post the centrality of culture and leadership in building an organization’s evaluation capacity. But sustaining evaluation capacity also depends on an organization’s ability to sell the value of their evaluation efforts to its stakeholders.

Effective evaluation depends on the engagement of numerous key stakeholders: you need staff to collect and use data; you need funders to support the costs of evaluation; and you may depend on community partners to collect and share their data that affects your outcomes.  Unfortunately, a strong evaluation system alone does not automatically translate into greater support from these stakeholders. In particular, in our assessment of the funding environment for evaluation, we have learned that funders differ significantly in their views of what evaluation means, the degree to which it is valuable, and what it should cost.

With the philanthropic community disjointed in its views of evaluation, you must make a succinct and strong case for why evaluation is central to your ability to grow and sustain their organization’s impact. To that end, there are several specific actions you can take:

  • Be clear about who your most important stakeholders are and what they value. Stakeholders are really anyone who “have a stake” in the success of your organization – your key board members, community partners, beneficiaries and funders. Be explicit about who the key stakeholders are as it relates to evaluation and what it is they value.
  • Articulate a clear value proposition for evaluation. You have to be able to articulate the value of evaluation to your organization’s impact in a way that appeals to the needs and expectations of your stakeholders.
  • Develop communications plans for key stakeholders. As each stakeholder may be different, you must deliberately plan how you will communicate with and engage each group.  Our client, Connecticut Association for Human Services (CAHS), developed a pithy weekly “top 3 things I learned this week” email from Executive Director, Jim Horan, initially meant to drive home to staff the organization’s learning culture. The email proved so effective that Jim now sends the email to board members as well, consistently driving home the value of evaluation to CAHS.
  • Emphasize transparency and a commitment to learning from outcomes. Increasingly, stakeholders, particularly funders, value organizations that are transparent and honest about their evaluation outcomes.

This last point is a critical one. Many nonprofits are under the impression that, when it comes to evaluation, their funders care mainly about their ability to accurately measure and report strong results. Yet, funders tend to value whether an organization is honest about and has learned from its outcomes even more than they care about the strength of the outcomes themselves. In short, you can most effectively engage and win the support of your stakeholders when you understand that evaluation is about learning and improving programs, not just reporting strong results.

Sustaining your evaluation capacity is tough. There is no silver bullet that can suddenly produce more funding or better systems. Yet you can overcome these challenges if you are committed to building, little by little, a culture of evaluation and if you can clearly articulate the value of your evaluation work to your supporters. To quote Mario Morino in Leap of Reason, “None of this takes big money. It takes time.”

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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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