Your ability to demonstrate your value with metrics and fact can make or break your chances for grant funding. Government and foundation grantmakers want to see evidence that grantees are achieving the results they said they would.
Plus, assessment lets you know if your program is having the effect that you think, why or why not, and what could be done to improve it. You can use that information to improve and grow your program.
Sadly, smaller non-profits often think they can't afford evaluation because they don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars for an evaluation study by a university or a big name consulting firm. As a result, too many valuable programs miss out on funding because their benefits haven't been well measured.
Here are five tips for demonstrating your value without breaking the bank.
1. Use pro bono or lower cost evaluation providers
Several sources can often provide lower cost or free research help:
- Graduate students seeking a topic for their thesis or consulting experience. A professor at a local university with an evaluation department may be able to connect you to graduate students who can assist you.
- Pro bono grantors. For example, Taproot Foundation provides competitive grants for pro bono Program Measurement services.
- Independent evaluation consultants and small evaluation consulting firms. Check out the American Evaluation Association's "Find an Evaluator" directory.
2. Do it yourself
Although an evaluation expert can get you more credible findings more quickly, if money is tight you might consider doing some or all of your evaluation on your own. Whether you are conducting an in-house evaluation or managing an external evaluation, several resources can help you learn the basics about evaluation:
- Organizations that provide training in how to evaluate a program, such as Center for Nonprofit Learning
- Foundation Center's online article, "Where can I learn about nonprofit program evaluation?"
- Free Resources for Program Evaluation and Social Research Methods website
3. Use a small sample method
Bigger is not always better when it comes to sample sizes. Sometimes you can get more useful data from close examination of a small group than from "big data" or a survey of a cast of thousands. A working paper by 3ie describes many rigorous methods for assessing cause and effect with small sample sizes.
4. Stick to useful questions
Avoid temptation to research questions that sound merely "interesting." Unlike purely academic studies, program evaluations must be useful for planning and managing what they are evaluating. Our tip sheet on"Asking Useful Evaluation Questions" includes a flow chart for asking useful questions.
5. Use what others have done
Before you collect new data, check the literature to see what's been done before. This will help you avoid squandering money and time re-testing what others have already demonstrated. Plus, it will help you show how your results add new knowledge that can benefit others in your field. Our paper on Reuse, Recycle: Rethink Research details questions to ask in reviewing research evidence.
BERNADETTE WRIGHT, PhD is Director of Research & Evaluation at Meaningful Evidence, LLC. She helps non-profits to design, improve, and show the value of their programs using strategic program evaluation and research. Her research experience includes projects in health/human services, education/STEM, race relations, and other topics. She also helps nonprofits to increase their evaluation capacity through articles/videos, presentations/trainings, and a bi-weekly email list. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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