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Clare Nolan and Sonia Taddy on Capacity Building for Nonprofits

Hello!  We’re Clare Nolan and Sonia Taddy with Harder+Company Community Research, a national consulting firm that specializes in evaluation.  We work with nonprofits, foundations, and government agencies throughout the country to plan and evaluate services for vulnerable populations.

Lesson Learned:  Over the years, we’ve evaluated multiple grantmaking initiatives designed to build the capacity of nonprofits.  Through those engagements, we have learned the following five lessons:

  1. Recognize that nonprofits have their own capacity goals and starting points.  Nonprofits participating in foundation-sponsored capacity-building initiatives frequently set their own goals for change.  Evaluations must be sensitive enough to capture change in organizations’ individual goals, as well as their individual “baseline” for these goals.
  1. Incorporate the nonprofit ecology in assessing outcomes.  Isolating the effects of a specific capacity-building initiative can be difficult given the many factors that influence nonprofit capacity and effectiveness.  Evaluations risk introducing bias into the analysis if they fail to account for the contextual influences that affect nonprofit progress.
  1. Balance self-assessments against more objective assessments.  Many capacity-building initiative evaluations rely solely on data self-reported by participating nonprofits.  Where possible, evaluations should seek to incorporate third-party assessments of nonprofit capacity that are potentially more objective.
  1. Create a safe space for evaluation.  Nonprofits participating in foundation-sponsored capacity-building initiatives are often reluctant to make their capacity needs known to funders.  Evaluators must work closely with foundation staff, consultants, and grantees to overcome these concerns.
  1. Use evaluation results to improve capacity building efforts.  Evaluation can play a key role in strengthening the delivery of technical assistance to nonprofits.  Studies that emphasize learning and program improvement are likely to be more useful than evaluations that only seek to “prove” whether a funded intervention worked.

Rad Resource:  This report by the Human Interaction Institute provides a good overview of key considerations in evaluating nonprofit capacity-building initiatives.

Hot Tip:  We’ll be sharing lessons learned from two recent capacity-building initiatives at this year’s American Evaluation Conference in Anaheim, CA.  Come join us Thursday, November 3rd at 1:35 PM in Pacific D to hear what we’ve learned from evaluating the Liberty Hill Foundation’s efforts to strengthen fundraising and advocacy capacity among minority-led and minority-serving organizations in Los Angeles, and the California HealthCare Foundation’s efforts to strengthen the management and financial capacity of California safety net dental clinics.

This contribution is from the aea365 Tip-a-Day Alerts, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. Want to learn more from Clare and Taddy? They’ll be presenting, Thursday, as part of the Evaluation 2011 Conference Program, November 2-5 in Anaheim, California.

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