Choosing the Right External Evaluator

  • September 21st, 2020

Time to apply for funding. Program Director? Check. Director of finances? Check. Grant writer? Check. This checklist would look familiar to many grant applicants, yet it is missing a crucial team member. The Program Evaluator belongs on this roster as well.

What makes the Program Evaluator so important? Evaluation reports provide built-in accountability for the use of funds. Most funding programs both federal and foundation require some sort of evaluation of the program. Having the individual responsible for the evaluation of the proposed program as a part of the grant writing team from the start can improve long-term grant seeking success and remove the burden of completing the evaluation from the project team allowing them to focus solely on project objectives.

Tip: Here are a few key areas where external evaluators are incredibly helpful: Goal and objective wording; Measurability and feasibility of goals and objectives; Measurement tools and best practices for program evaluation; Timelines for evaluation; and Expenses associated with evaluation.

While it is always acceptable to hire an external evaluator government funding and larger private foundation grants in particular often require it.

Many organizations that have not worked with a qualified outside evaluator in the past worry about how to find an evaluator and how the process works for getting the required evaluation information for the application once they do.  To avoid stress surrounding this situation it is advisable for applicants to research the topic beforehand and begin seeking a qualified individual or firm immediately.

Tip: Three great places to find an evaluator-the American Evaluation Association website member list; partner organizations in a similar field that have used outside evaluators and can provide referrals; and
the funding agency who may have a vetted list of evaluators that you can select from.

Questions to ask potential evaluators

  • Are you/your colleagues members of the American Evaluation Association (AEA)?  Your reason for asking is to ensure that they are following the AEA code of ethics.
  • Are you fully insured for coverage as you travel to our site and when you are at our facility?  As you would expect adequate insurance for a contractor conducting work in your home or office, the same is true of requiring adequate insurance coverage from an evaluator.
  • What type of grants do you have experience with?  STEM?  Education?  Health?  If they do not have specific experience with your type of project, understanding what specific funding line items and projects they have experience with will help you understand if their skills and knowledge are transferable.
  • What is your common fee structure for working with new clients to complete the evaluation portion of an application?  You want to avoid any billing surprises and understand the deliverables they will provide in moving forward with a business relationship with an evaluator.
  • Once funding is approved, what is your process for working with program staff and management?  What methodology will you use?  How much time will the work take and at what expense?  Here you will find a series of questions designed to help you better understand the evaluator’s methodology. This is presented in a way that is understandable to those who don’t conduct formal evaluations, regardless of the level of complexity of the proposed evaluation methodology.
  • Ask your evaluator how often they plan to be onsite once funding is approved?  How do they plan to provide progress reports?   These questions are also designed to help you better understand the evaluator’s methodology.  Remember, the evaluator works for your organization, so you expecting the evaluator to attend advisory board meetings to answer questions and provide helpful information to committee members about the status of the program is realistic and reasonable to request.
  • Can you provide references to clients who successfully implemented similar grant programs?  You should expect references for an evaluator to provide feedback about any concerns or questions as well as give you a feel for how their relationship with the evaluator worked.

What Makes An Evaluator A Good Fit?

  • Can they answer all your questions? Are you are satisfied with their answers?
  • Do they have reference checks?
  • Can they actively follow through with what was planned for their role in the project?

First of all, there are different types of evaluators. Each has a style both in evaluation style and in personality. It is important to make sure the evaluator is a good fit for the company in terms of relevant experience, and style.

To make the most of your evaluator, bring them on early in the process. Your evaluation should not be a last-minute thought by any means. Evaluation should happen at regular intervals throughout the project duration. The evaluator and project team should be having regular evaluation meetings where the evaluator can collect data, make site visits and gain context of data, and record progress. It is for this reason that the external evaluator should be written into the grant or business plan from the very beginning or at the very least the hiring of such personnel should be included as a key activity in the project timeline during the first few weeks.

The involvement of an outside evaluator should not be an experience that is dreaded by project personnel or employees. It should be viewed as a process that strengthens a program for its current as well as future implementation. Ultimately, Evaluators should be viewed as a valuable member of the team and a valuable asset to stakeholders and the focus should be on how their work can help make the project more successful.


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