3 Common Program Evaluation Mistakes

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Guest Blogger – Al Onkka

3 Common Program Evaluation Mistakes

Program evaluation is an essential nonprofit activity and competency. Good program evaluation helps nonprofits improve their work, better serve their clients, tell a compelling story of impact, and build support. However, it’s hard to prioritize program evaluation when there is so much to do to just make a program happen. Here are three common program evaluation mistakes I see all the time.

Doing it for the grant

Grant support is vital for nonprofits. At the same time, nonprofits know that they must guard against “mission creep” – doing programs that you might not if you weren’t receiving funding. Mission creep is a product of a reactive culture. Being reactive helps you in the short term, but hurts you in the long term. Likewise, I often see what I’ll call “evaluation creep” – doing evaluation only because the funder requires it. Evaluation creep hurts nonprofits. When we feel like we are doing evaluation only because it’s required, we view evaluation as a waste of time and resources. Being proactive with evaluation has huge benefits for nonprofits. When you identify the questions, goals, and outcomes that you care about, your evaluation strategy is meaningful and valuable to you.

Starting with the survey

Surveys are the evaluation tool most commonly used by nonprofits. Too often, I see nonprofits try to write surveys without a clear understanding of what the survey should be investigating. They haven’t done the initial proactive work of identifying the program’s goals or outcomes. Without a plan for what the survey should be investigating, writing the survey is difficult for the organization, and the end result is poor. Poor surveys are frustrating for survey takers and produce low value data that isn’t used by the organization. Much better to start with an evaluation plan. The more time you spend planning your evaluation, the easier it is to write the survey (or interview or focus group) and use the results.

Forgetting to learn

Evaluation is wasted if it’s not used. Often, a lot of work goes into evaluating a program—writing surveys, collecting responses, analyzing data, reporting results—and the result is a PDF attachment to a grantor. That’s one way to use the results of the evaluation, but an easy opportunity has been missed. An organization can learn so much by simply getting together, reviewing the results of the evaluation, and discussing, “What can we learn from this?” “Where could we use these results?” and “What are some new questions we have because of this data?” Spending time together interpreting the results and identifying next steps makes any evaluation, proactive or reactive, meaningful to the organization. Have you evaluated your programs recently?

Al brings us Practical Program Evaluation on June 19, 2019.  Join us to discover how to assess programs based on experience, outcome and impact!

Al Onkka is a principal consultant at Aurora Consulting, a Minnesota-based firm serving nonprofits. He works at the leadership level to help nonprofits plan for the future and evaluate their impact. Al has worked in the field of evaluation, promoting data-based decision-making and organizational learning since 2009.