Authors Marcia Festen and Marianne Philbin appropriately title their book “Level Best” because it means to make your very best effort, and nonprofits can aspire to this level when their performance is backed by solid program evaluation. “Solid evaluation is the first step toward increasing effectiveness and, in turn, successfully marketing and documenting your work,” say the authors.
Level Best demystifies the evaluation process and offers a practical five-step framework that enables more confident decision-making, sound planning and increased credibility (to the community and funders). We asked Festen and Philbin why evaluating impact seems like a daunting prospect to nonprofits and we also asked where to start. Here’s what they had to say:
CausePlanet: Your book does an excellent job of clarifying how to go about evaluating nonprofit programs. What makes evaluation such a tricky proposition to begin with?
Festen and Philbin: Nonprofits often begin the evaluation process prompted by specific pressures from board members or funders who dream of or demand answers to questions that are way beyond the scope of what an evaluation can reveal. Evaluation is not research. You can evaluate whether or not a program purporting to teach teenagers about safe sex provided useful materials in accessible language or attracted the intended audience, but you’re never going to know what the program participants actually did on prom night. And even if you could, it would be another leap to be able to definitively claim that your program, as opposed to a thousand other factors, was the key influence that shaped their behavior. As our fellow consultant Susie Pratt has said, “Evaluation at best is about providing evidence; it is not about providing proof.”
CausePlanet: The “flow of nonprofit work and the nature of evaluation” is a terrific way to look at the three components of a nonprofit’s work that can be evaluated. Is there one that stands out as an easier place to start?
Festen and Philbin: What you choose to evaluate depends on what you want to learn. You may want to look at what you do and how to do it better, or what happened as a result of your work, or both. Generally, the fundamental pattern of how nonprofits function is: there is work, there are results, and, over time, there is impact. At any given time, you may want to evaluate one or more of these three dimensions. Evaluating true “impact” — that is, the cumulative influence of multiple outcomes over time– tends to be beyond the scope of any single evaluation. So in that regard, in answer to your question, evaluating the work you do (your process) or its results (your immediate outcomes) is easier than evaluating impact, which is a long-haul proposition, and can be pretty subjective.