In the minds of grant makers, impact is king.
It’s what they want to see most in your proposals and ultimately in your outcomes. But here comes some tough love: arts organizations are not always great at creating evaluation strategies for their programming that allow them to adequately demonstrate impact.
I touched on this in a different blog post earlier this month (5 Sneaky Problems That Can Derail Your Grant Writing Efforts), but it’s such an important topic that I thought a longer post was warranted.
In that previous post, I briefly talked about how in years past arts organizations used to be able to put some low-level attendance and ticket sales data into their grant proposals and that was usually enough to get them a decent grant award. But things have changed. Grant makers are more focused now on only funding nonprofits that can demonstrate meaningful impact. Yes, even those focused on funding the arts.
And here’s the thing: attendance numbers and ticket sales don’t usually show the kind of impact those funders are looking for. Don’t get me wrong. I still think you should be collecting and tracking this information. I still think you should be including it in grant applications. I just don’t think it’s enough all by itself.
If you’ve been noticing it becoming harder to secure awards with the same data sets you’ve used for years, know that you are far from alone. But what should you be doing instead?
Here are my best suggestions:
Think outside the box about what types of data will best demonstrate impact
Again, definitely continue collecting ticket sales and attendance figures. But what other types of data could you be collecting that might help you show that your programming is affecting positive change and outcomes? The answer to that will be different for each organization depending on your mission and what types of programs you actually offer. But here are some general examples that could be adapted to most arts programming:
- Create surveys to collect anecdotal stories from program participants
- Create pre- and post-tests to give program participants (this helps show growth of knowledge, skill, and other important markers)
- Collaborate with and collect data from local/city organizations (for example, if your program works with students and one of your objectives is to create better educational outcomes through participation in the arts, you can work with the school district to collect data on grades and graduation rates)
- You can get tons more ideas for what and how to measure outcomes for your programs on the National Endowment for the Arts website. They have a wealth of resources on this very topic, available here.
Create an actual evaluation strategy and plan
I see a lot of arts organizations sort of “winging it” when it comes to evaluation. If a grant asks them to describe their evaluation strategy, they usually throw together something passable, but truthfully they have no real “strategy” or plan. And hey, that’s understandable to a point. Nonprofit staff are notoriously overworked and short on time. Your org’s staff are probably busy delivering the actual programming – not worrying about evaluation plans.
But here’s the thing: not having a true plan or strategy in place can hurt your chances for grant awards, particularly the coveted larger or multi-year awards. And here’s another truth that should make you feel a bit better about the whole thing: although putting together a plan will involve some work on the front end, it should save you time on the back-end and ensure your programs are more efficient and better-funded overall. It’s worth the work!
When you put together a plan, you should think through what types of data you need to collect, how much time it will take, who at your organization should be responsible for data collection, what tools will help you get it done with the least difficulty, and how you will compile and analyze the data you collect.
For resources on forming your evaluation plan, check out the NEA link I referenced above and also check out the National Council of Nonprofit’s resources for Evaluation & Measurement of Outcomes.
Set a schedule and stick to it
Once you’ve created an evaluation plan, you should literally put important dates for executing the plan on your calendar. When are you going to send out surveys or collect participant data? When are you going to generate reports? Put it on the calendar.
Then take it a step further. When are you going to take this data and plug it into spreadsheets (if applicable)? When are you going to compile your evaluation data into a usable format? When are you going to analyze what you collected? Put it on your calendar.
Now go a third level deeper. Once you’ve analyzed your data, what will you do with it? Chances are good that sometimes you will find data that indicates needed changes to your programming. What will you do with that? Will you need to call meetings with staff to discuss it? What else will need to happen to make these changes and improve your program and its delivery or outcomes? Put it on the calendar.
I hope this article has given you some food for thought and some doable ways to integrate better evaluation planning into your organization. I promise your efforts will pay dividends. And I can’t recommend highly enough that you check out the resources from the NEA and the National Council of Nonprofits I linked to above. They have tons of tools and insights that can help you get it done quicker and smarter and best of all, you’ll be able to say in your grant narratives that your evaluation plans are based on best practices!