Posts Tagged ‘Marcia Festen’

How strong is your case for support?


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.

Learn more about Festen and Philbin’s book or our Page to Practice book summary of Level Best.

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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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