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How to Assess the Performance of Nonprofit Programs

Assessing the performance of your nonprofit programs isn’t easy, but evaluating what you do can help you do it better. Besides, if foundation grants help fund your programs, the odds are good that you’ll be asked to report whether you achieved your goals and objectives anyway.

  1. Begin with the end in mind.

    When you’re starting a new program or project, ask yourself how it will be evaluated. Ask yourself these questions: How will I know if the program or project meets its goals? What can I measure or observe in our clients that will signal that we have achieved our objectives?

  2. Ask yourself who you’re doing the evaluation for.

    Figure out who will want to be updated with the results of your program. It may be your board of directors, your constituents, your contributors, your foundation funders, and, certainly, yourself. Looking at the audience for your evaluation report will help you determine the questions to be asked and the type of data to collect.

    If your program was supported by a foundation grant, you probably included the goals and objectives of your program in your grant proposal. When you file your final report to the funder, she’ll want to know whether these goals and objectives were met. And, if they weren’t, she’ll want to know why.

    Your board will want to know whether your programs are operating efficiently and effectively and whether they’re helping the organization achieve its mission. You’ll be interested in knowing whether your program is too expensive for the results it provides and whether you can find a better way to accomplish your goals.

  3. Decide what to measure.

    You can choose from many different types of evaluations. They can be as basic as counting the number of people who come through your door to as formal as assessments of client behavioral change or changes in public attitudes.

    If you want to make evaluation a breeze, keep it simple. The most basic sort of evaluation is counting the number of clients served, the number of people in your audience, or the number of media releases distributed to the public. If you proposed that your program would provide after-school art classes to 30 children between the ages of 12 and 15 for an hour each week for 40 weeks, all you need to do is keep attendance records, record the ages of children served, and count the number of weeks the program was in session.

    If you want to successfully go beyond simple counting, your best bet is to undertake a pre- and post-program assessment.

  4. Get outside help if necessary.

    Avoiding personal bias is one good reason to arrange for a program to be evaluated by an outside evaluator. Sometimes, large project grants from foundations or government agencies require that an independent evaluation be carried out. For most programs, however, outside evaluators are too costly.

    If you do decide that an evaluation consultant is needed — either to undertake a complete evaluation of a project or to give you advice on how to do a better job of internally evaluating your program — don’t wait until the project is finished to call for the evaluator’s help.

    Deciding how to evaluate a project should be done at the same time that the program is being designed. By building in your evaluation at the beginning of a project, you can collect baseline data and set up systems for collecting information as you go along. It’s much easier to settle on your evaluation approach before you begin than it is to scramble backward to find the information you need.

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