I recently received an article via e-mail that I found very thought provoking and frankly a bit challenging. The original article is unfortunately behind a subscription wall so I can’t link to it but it was written by Michael Scriven and published in the Grantmakers Evaluation Network, vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 2000. The article was written specifically to foundations and is titled Evaluation and the Philanthropic Fallacy.
In the article is this paragraph:
Without serious evaluation and needs assessment, you have no way of knowing that you are providing help to those who need it most; you have no way of knowing whether what you’re providing for them is the best you could provide, given your resources; and you have no way of knowing whether the way in which you provide it is anything like optimal – even within the foundation’s chosen mission area. It follows that you have no way of knowing whether you are grossly abusing the funds and other resources in your charge.
Substitute the word foundation with your organization’s name. One of the points that this presentation makes is that we in the non-profit world often mistakenly think that implementing a systematic evaluation process is a misuse of donor funds. After all, if they are not going directly to the program then they are counted as overhead or administrative expense and we need to avoid those expenditures whenever possible.
Scriven makes the case, and I tend to agree with him, that evaluation should be considered part of program expense. When properly conducted, evaluation systems will lead to improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of the non-profit organization. Too often we are running hard and fast to respond to the world’s problems (or at least those in our neighborhood) and don’t stop to think about doing our best. Good implementation of evaluation systems should improve the payoff from the organization’s program expenditures. If for no other reason than the organization learns what it did wrong and sets a process for correction. While Scriven is pointing the finger at foundations, the principles apply to non-profit organizations in general.
Apart from its role as (1) a multiplier of the effectiveness of existing efforts, evaluation has other functions: (2) the accountability function – showing the trustees and the public sector that you are performing optimally; (3) the learning function – by learning from mistakes as well as successes, you find where you can do the most good (this means that negative results are treated as being just as important as positive ones, which usually calls for a culture shift in a nonprofit; (4) the research function, adding to our generalizable and specific knowledge; and (5) the motivational function. . . . The bottom line is that the absence of serious professional evaluation – evaluation which is itself critically evaluated to make sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to do – is not just sign of bad management in the nonprofit, it is a sign of dereliction of duty.
Building evaluative capacity into program offerings is increasingly important. Without some method of examining our work, do we know for sure that we are doing the best we can? Oh, and as Scriven points out in closing – evaluate the evaluators. “And never hire an evaluator who can’t suggest ways to get her or his work evaluated.”