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Measuring What Matters

Evaluation. It is almost guaranteed that every nonprofit executive director or program officer who started to read this article just groaned after reading that word. Why has there been so much emphasis on evaluation lately? Is it just another annoying burden that funders are placing on already resource-strapped nonprofits? What does evaluation even mean? More importantly, why does it matter?

What is Evaluation and Its Challenges?

According to Merriam-Webster, evaluation means to determine or fix the value, significance, worth or condition usually by careful appraisal or study. Great, all of our questions have been answered! Except wait, how do you measure worth? What does careful appraisal or study mean?

Herein lies the problem with evaluation. Many times, when asked to conduct a program evaluation for funders, nonprofits do not know where to begin. They have not been formally trained to evaluate, they do not know what data to look for and, most importantly, they do not know how to analyze the data in a useful way after they collect it. Therefore, they do not see it as valuable for their own purposes and feel as though it is another red-tape item for a grant application or report.

“The three biggest challenges to integrating evaluation practices into nonprofits are time, money and knowledge,” said Pedro Paz, Program and Evaluation Manager for First 5 Santa Barbara County. “While time and money are more easily solvable, the idea of learning evaluation is new and has to be embedded and accepted into the culture of organizations in a way that they see as valuable.”

While more nonprofit organizations are beginning to spend time and money on evaluation due to pressure from funders, they are still learning how to follow best practices to maximize the learning for their organization.

“When I started at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, I was definitely not an evaluator nor was I trained in evaluation,” said Kate Davis, Interpretation and Evaluation Coordinator at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. “However, after completing my degree program and learning more about evaluation, I am looking at the data we have and I am seeing that we have just been collecting a lot of numbers that mean nothing. We need to start recognizing that evaluation is not just for funders and that if we collect the right data, it can actually help us improve user experience, too.”

How Do We Incorporate Evaluation?

Now that we understand some of the challenges facing evaluation, how do we incorporate it to improve process and maximize learning, and do so in the limited time we have to provide services? To start, meet your organization where it is in the evaluation process.

“In addition to educating the community about what evaluation is and coming up with a shared common language among funders and nonprofits about how to communicate evaluation findings collectively, I think that it is important in the interim to make evaluation accessible to nonprofits in day-to-day operations,” said Kristen Sullivan, an evaluator for the Towbes Foundation. “We work with nonprofits to find out what their goals and outcomes are, not ours, and then we work backwards to identify ways in which they can better measure their goals, while educating staff in the process.”

Nonprofits are not the only ones that have struggled to integrate meaningful evaluation into their processes, but many businesses, government agencies and foundations have also faced barriers. However, with the growth of technology and increased importance placed on maximizing impact, the practice of evaluation has been increasing throughout sectors and has encouraged organizations, like us at the Santa Barbara Foundation, to do more with evaluation.

“While we have always done our best to be responsive to the community and evaluate the effectiveness of our grant programs, the creation of my position explicitly dedicates someone at the foundation to implementing best practices in evaluation and that we create a shared space for learning and meaningful change in our community,” said Rubayi Estes, Director of Evaluation and Learning at the Santa Barbara Foundation. “We are already shifting the way that we collect and analyze data so that we can improve the experience for all of our constituents.”

While we know we still have much to learn in the field of the evaluation, we hope that our nonprofit partners recognize that putting resources into measuring what matters can really help improve organizational effectiveness and increase positive impact across the county. For more information about the Santa Barbara Foundation strategic planning process and new efforts in evaluation, please contact Barbara Andersen, Chief Strategy Officer, at
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