When organizations talk about evaluation, they often feel overwhelmed. Too often, we assume evaluation requires lots of time and money that smaller organizations simply don’t have. But, program evaluation doesn’t need to be intensive to be valuable. Simply put, evaluation is nothing more than a systematic method for collecting, analyzing, and using the information to answer basic questions about a program, project, or activity.
Evaluation is a process that critically examines a program or project. It involves collecting and analyzing information about a program’s activities, characteristics, and outcomes. Its purpose is to make judgments about a program, to improve its effectiveness, and/or to inform programming decisions (Patton, 1987).
Often we are asked if it doesn’t require that much time or money, why do it at all? We have compiled a list of the most common reasons. These reasons come from our years of experience working with organizations and conducting evaluations. In no particular order – here are 5 reasons.
- Usefulness: Program evaluations also inform decisions on whether to continue, postpone, or cancel a program. The evaluation provides useful data on whether the program is meeting its objectives and the needs of participants. The data can be used to determine efficiency by weighing the program costs and resources with student needs and outcomes (supply and demand).
- Improvement: One of the primary benefits of program evaluation is that it provides useful data to drive improvements. The information gathered can indicate whether the program serves its purpose, was conducted appropriately, and whether it met its goals and objectives. The data can also be used to discover whether the delivery methods and approaches were effective. The program’s strengths and areas for improvement spearhead constructive program changes that enhance the quality of the program or project.
- Outcomes: An effective program evaluation helps you to identify what works and what doesn’t. That knowledge empowers program managers to focus on the essential components of your program model that most benefit participants. It also allows them to fine-tune program design and delivery to maximize outcomes. At the same time, being able to adapt, improve or eliminate program elements that do not contribute to success saves valuable resources. So, focusing on program evaluation gives you the information you need to not only produce better outcomes, but also spend less time, money, and energy to do so.
- Funding: Funders want to support programs and projects that can demonstrate impact and value. They want to invest in programs that know how to drive outcomes. Essentially, they want a return on their investment. Stories and anecdotes can give a human face to your success, but to be truly powerful they need to be backed by concrete data. Funders generally required some type of program evaluation as a condition of funding. And, while they ultimately want to see strong outcomes, simply having systems in place for program evaluation can demonstrate a commitment to high-quality programs that funders value. While individual donors may not “require” program evaluation formerly, they too want to see tangible evidence. Focusing on evaluation will ensure that you can demonstrate and effectively communicate your impact and outcomes to critical funders.
- Best Practices: A strong focus on program evaluation gives you the tools you need to replicate and scale successful programs. For some organizations, that might mean expanding programs (with that increase in funding your evaluation helped you capture!). For others, it may give you the tools you need to inspire and lead other organizations to replicate your success in their own communities. Regardless of how and where you replicate and scale your impact, sharing critical findings from your program evaluation adds knowledge and power to the community of change-makers. That means you don’t have to be a big organization to become a true leader in your field. You simply have to focus on program evaluation and be willing to share what you learn.
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