Mission impossible or mission accomplished?

What is the difference between mission impossible and mission accomplished? According to Level Best authors, Marcia Festen and Marianne Philbin, effective program evaluation. Before you push the snooze button, I read this book cover to cover and found their approach lively and relevant. Yes, I just used “lively” in the same sentence as “evaluation.” And you’ll be glad to know in their world, evaluation and massive amounts of research don’t coexist. No, Festen and Philbin realize that nonprofits don’t always have the time and resources for mounds of collected data. Instead they introduce a five-step method and the concept of “rolling evaluation,” which makes the whole idea very doable and even better, rewarding. Why? Because their aim is to inform better decision making, save money, enhance marketing and drum roll please, secure funding.

In the age of community transparency, funder accountability and the savvy donor who wants nonprofits to connect the dots between his/her gift and the outcomes, organizations must rise up to meet not just new levels of expectations, but “level best.” Festen and Philbin prove that evaluation is a primary means for determining if your organization is performing at its best. Today, I wanted to kick off our month of focusing on evaluation by looking at one of the questions we asked for our interview with Marcia and Marianne. You can find the complete interview in this month’s Page to Practice™.

CausePlanet: What is the most common mistake nonprofits experience when trying to evaluate programs?

Festen and Philbin: Nonprofit leaders sometimes have the impression that evaluation is about gathering massive amounts of data, typically when a project ends, and then somehow sorting through it to “see what it says,” like a photo coming into focus. Instead, evaluation should begin with a question, your question. Formulating a clear evaluation question guides your work as well as your evaluation because it forces you to consider what it is you want to know about the work you’re doing. The information you gather is geared toward answering that question, and the question is fundamentally related to your goals. It is important to remember that the purpose of evaluation is to help you learn so that you can make course corrections when necessary, not to make judgments about what you did in the past. If you are too focused on proving your work is “good,” you lose out on the opportunity to learn from it and enrich it over time. And remember that the best evaluation question is one that is very specific to your goals; asking, “What kind of impact are we having?” is not a good evaluation question. It implies that you don’t know, that it could be anything, that you aren’t consciously working toward something very specific that you have intentionally set as a goal. It is your progress toward that particular goal that you want your evaluation to explore.

Lern more about Festen and Philbin’s book or our Page to Practice book summary of Level Best, which features our author interview.

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