What to Do with the Results of a Nonprofit Program Performance Assessment

Imagine that you’ve collected and organized the information that will tell you what you want to know about your nonprofit organization. It’s at hand in lists and charts and graphs. Now you know whether your programs are outstanding and whether your clients’ lives are enhanced by your work.

Wait! Not so fast. Just as you must decide on the right questions to investigate as you set out on your evaluation, you need to ask questions of the data you’ve compiled. Having data and descriptive information isn’t the same thing as having knowledge and understanding. Now you must interpret the information and decide how to apply it.

How to interpret results

Although it may seem unscientific, before you look closely at the information compiled, you ask yourself what your hunches are. What do you think it will show you? Be honest with yourself: What do you think the findings are going to show, and what do you wish they would show?

Often a moment of insight comes when the pattern revealed in the data isn’t what you expected to find. After identifying any such surprises, you can probe more deeply to ask why and how those results didn’t meet expectations.

After you’ve read the data against your assumptions, it’s time to look at it anew as if you had no expectations. What general picture does it present? What stands out? Is the information consistent over the course of the year, or does it vary — perhaps according to the season, age of participants, or changes in your staff?

We recommend that you include others in this exercise — ask a few key staff and board members and maybe even a few of your constituents. What do they see? What is surprising to them? Of course, if you hired an evaluation consultant, let his or her experience guide you at this phase.

Although you don’t want to confuse people with ambivalent or “anything goes” interpretations, having more than one point of view can be valuable. Bring a balanced perspective to the findings: Don’t embrace all the praise and discount all the criticism (or vice versa). You can learn from both.

Use your evaluation to strengthen your work

You’ve looked at your evaluation findings with trusted colleagues; you’ve turned them inside out and upside down to see them from every angle. Now it’s time to interpret them, to tell their story. Likely what you’ve discovered is not all positive and not all negative.

Likely you’ve noticed that some services are rated more highly than others and some short-term objectives have been met, but others remain elusive. It’s time to step back from your organization and programs, and acknowledge any disappointing results and set short-term and long-term goals to improve upon them.

A program may be flawed in its design, in how it’s executed, or in who is leading it; and its effectiveness can be smothered by external circumstances that are beyond its control — a shift in the economy or demographics, a change in public policy, or even a natural disaster can derail it.

Some changes will be obvious and easy to do. Maybe a different program schedule would be more convenient for working parents, or better training for volunteers would make them feel more involved and successful. When your findings don’t suggest easy responses, turn to ideas from others — best practices in your field, model programs, or scholarly research. Don’t forget to ask the clients you serve.

Evaluation findings also should be shared with your board, which is ultimately responsible for your nonprofit’s fulfilling its mission and purpose. It may decide that some programs aren’t a good investment of the nonprofit’s hard-won resources and recommend cutting them.

Tell the truth

If your evaluation results are disappointing, face them honestly and share what you’ve discovered. You may share them discreetly with your board or with the funders who know you well, but doctoring your data or analyzing the findings in a disingenuous way can hurt the reputation of your organization and of your evaluation consultant, if you hired one. All that time and effort you put into your evaluation is lost.

These days the public deeply values transparency. Unless your report contains confidential information, create an executive summary of your findings and publish them as a brochure or PDF available through your website or shared with donors.

You may find that a poor evaluation lowers staff morale, but if those staff members are invited to participate in creative problem solving, improving customer service, and other goal-setting activities, working with the evaluation can contribute to building their teamwork and resolve.

Ultimately, it’s important that you yourself embrace and attempt to understand the evaluation findings. Many people start nonprofits based on ideals, and many work long hours with limited resources to achieve very ambitious results. Achieving those results depends on collecting good information to guide you and interpreting that information with integrity and resolve.

At the end of the day, the purpose of your evaluation is to benefit your nonprofit organization.

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