Program evaluation, to put it simply, is the process of putting in place systems and procedures to measure whether or not your nonprofit’s program has achieved its stated goals and how effective (or not) it’s been in doing so.
I figured it was probably time to delve into program evaluation because it’s SO important if you want your grant proposals to be funded. And since it goes hand in hand with program design (check out my last blog post on program design here), I wanted to give you a standalone blog post to break down all the important stuff about how to do it right.
For the sake of your grant strategy and your bottom line, this is one topic where it’s really worth your while to read everything you can get your hands on and implement the best strategies you can.
But, I also know that most nonprofit staffers just do not have an extra couple hours in their work week to research this stuff. You’re busy….you know, saving the world.
So to help out, I’ve compiled my top 5 program evaluation strategies for you, followed by exactly why implementing these will help you with grants.
And don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom of the post, where I’ve provided you with info on how to win a FREE Program Refresh Kit from Anchoring Success, which can help you revamp your program eval approach in record time.
Here are 5 strategies to help you with effective program evaluation:
1. Identify what you need to know about your program and what decisions need to be made
First and foremost, what and why are you trying to evaluate this program? Do you need more grant funding? Is it a new program? Is it a longstanding program that’s never really been meaningfully evaluated? Does it seem less effective than it used to but you aren’t sure why?
Take a piece of paper and write down your “why” for evaluating this program. Next, write down what decisions might need to be made about this program. The answer(s) to this are probably going to be closely tied to your “why”.
For example, if you think it’s not as effective as it used to be and you need to know why, then maybe you’re trying to decide if the program needs to have significant changes made to it or if you would be better off scrapping it and starting a different program which better addresses the need.
Another example: If you are starting a new program for which you want to secure grant funding, you may need to figure out the best way to show that it’s effective to those funders.
2. Tie it to outcomes
Whatever your program is, it should have a list of intended outcomes and/or objectives which its trying to achieve. Ideally, these outcomes and objectives should be written using the SMART framework, which is…..
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Actionable
R – Relevant
T – Time-bound
So, if you’ve done the work of ensuring your outcomes are SMART, then you will know exactly what you need to measure and what data you need to collect in order to evaluate your programming.
You’ll know the timeline on which these outcomes need to occur, who is responsible for making it all happen, and exactly (to the letter) what is supposed to happen.
3. Collect both qualitative and quantitative data
When you collect data from your program for the purposes of evaluation, make sure that you’ve built in systems that can help you gather both quantitative (hard numbers, facts, etc.) and qualitative (anecdotes, stories, opinions) data.
You see, quantitative data helps you unequivocally make your case that what you are doing works. But qualitative data helps you make the case for the impact you are making in the lives of your patrons and participants. And with the arts, the qualitative data is often just as important, if not more so, than concrete numbers.
Here are some examples of both types of data that typically work well for arts programming:
- # of tickets sold
- # of class registrations
- # of free or reduced price tickets given out to at-risk/low-income/some other demographic residents
- # of attendees
- % grades increased in students involved in your programs (this would require some collaboration with relevant school districts)
- % decrease in unemployment in target area (this could help make the case for larger arts collaborations that the presence of lots of arts events is driving economic growth and job growth)
- % decrease in crime rates (this could help make the case that the increased presence of arts opportunities is helping to give positive outlets to residents of troubled neighborhoods)
- 2 surveys (one administered at the outset of the program and one at the end) measuring participants expectations, opinions, and personal outcomes
- Surveys to collect personal stories of impact at the end of a program
- Photos/videos/audio files to show evidence of impact as demonstrated through performances, reactions, etc.
- Participant reviews
- Letters of support or constructive criticism from participants
4. Compare your evaluation data with other similar programs
I cannot stress enough that ‘best practices’ are something you should always consider in both program design and program evaluation. Looking up what is considered best practice in your particular area of the arts or with a certain type of program can give you an established, proven roadmap for designing and evaluating your program, saving you time, money, and frustration. Plus, if you can say that your program is modeled after best practices (or at least similar successful programs) then grant makers will be much more likely to view your program as a smart investment.
Hopefully you’ve looked at likely models for your programs when you designed them. But even if you didn’t, I still recommend looking at successful programs to see how they are evaluating them. Call colleagues at other arts organizations with great programming and have a chat about it, make a few phone calls, or start googling.
Another route to finding effective program models is to look to the grantmakers themselves. Very often, they will post examples of grants they’ve funded on their website. When this is the case, you can usually download PDFs of these proposals and scour the evaluation sections to see what they are doing.
And really, these proposals should be required reading anyway, because they show you the level at which your own proposals need to be written if they want to have a hope of being chosen for an award.
5. Make evaluating programs a regularly scheduled activity
It goes without saying that things that aren’t scheduled and physically on your calendar, don’t get done. And it’s true of evaluation procedures, also.
Once you’ve decided on the best ways to pull data out of your program for evaluation purposes, your next step should be figuring out the schedule on which this work needs to be done.
This schedule could be as simple as collating data from a survey once at the end of the program or it could require you to be gathering data each month. Either way, make sure you know what needs to happen, when it needs to happen, and who’s responsible for making it happen. Then put it on the calendar and plan to follow-up to ensure everything gets done.
Although the tips I’ve outlined above may seem simple and obvious, you would be surprised at how many grant writers tend to neglect them.
Even those with in-depth evaluation methods sometimes don’t do a great job at explaining that in the actual proposal. And unfortunately, it can make the difference between getting the award or getting a big fat denial letter.
So don’t skimp on beefing up your program evaluation plan!
If some of you out there know that your existing programs could probably use some help in regards to their design and evaluation, but the thought of taking the time and effort to do it makes you want to hide under your desk, then I have good news!
I’ve teamed up with Anchoring Success this month to offer you a FREE copy of their Program Refresh Kit. Anchoring Success is a company which helps nonprofits with strategic planning, program design, program evaluation, and similar services (and they’re really good at it, too).
Anchoring Success has a popular Program Refresh service which they’ve turned into a DIY kit for clients. It walks you through how to streamline and edit your program to maximize efficiency and impact. They make it fast, super easy, and when you’re done I can guarantee that your program will be much more competitive for grant dollars.
You can watch this video for more info and I’ve included instructions on how to enter the raffle below:
How to Enter:
- Make sure you’re on the Arts Roundup Email List. If you already are, great! If not, sign up here.
- Sign up for Anchoring Success’ email list here (at the bottom of the page).
- Stay tuned for our announcement of the winner at the end of September!
Morghan Alfaro-Young Velez and I will also be releasing a ‘2 Tips’ Video in October (Date TBD) where she and I will give our perspectives on how organizational infrastructure can make every single thing you do easier and more effective.