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Helping Nonprofits Use Data to Learn by Chari Smith, President, Evaluation into Action by Chari Smith

Hi, I’m Chari Smith with Evaluation into Action. I work with a range of nonprofits and foundations in the Northwest area.

Evaluation is a learning opportunity. Nonprofits need help to set up their organizations so that they can integrate program evaluation into their daily activities. It is a critical piece to ensure they can do program evaluation long-term.

Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS) is a great example of a nonprofit that achieved integrating evaluation into the organization long-term. In 2013, I worked with PHFS to create a realistic and meaningful evaluation plan for their shelter program. During that process, I learned the case managers were not consistent in how and what they documented. A key part of the plan was standardizing the data collected, so they aligned to their goal: Families get housed.

Today, PHFS continues to use the evaluation plan. Here is an example of how they use the data: They track the families’ length of stay in the shelter. Data showed an increase in the length of stay. In the past, it had been 32 days on average for about 4-5 years. Then it increased – families were staying in shelter an average of 75-90 days.

They investigated why that change occurred. Turns out some families in the shelter have more barriers to housing than others, and need more one-on-one case management than other families.  A program change was made based on data. A single person was dedicated to help the families identified has having more barriers, and provide more one-to-one case management. Average days in the shelter decreased to 57.

Hot Tip:  To engage nonprofit organizations, ensure anyone who is a part of data collection, analysis, reporting, communicating and/or usage is a part of the planning process. A good place to start is to administer an evaluation opinion survey, including questions that will provide insight into their perspective on program evaluation topics. Questions may include:

  • What do you think the program goals are?
  • What impact do you think the program has?
  • Do you have concerns about evaluation?
  • What do you hope to learn?

Then, use their answers to build a process that addresses those responses, and at the same time, will build bu- in to doing program evaluation. They start to see the value in doing program evaluation as a learning opportunity, not a burden.

Lessons Learned:  It took three years for PHFS to migrate from managing data in spreadsheets to a database solution. It’s a challenge to find a database vendor that is the right fit in terms of costs and products.

Rad Resource: The Organizational Capacity to Do and Use Evaluation is one of my favorite issues of New Directions in Evaluation Journal. Loaded with case studies, great to learn from.

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1 comment

  • Lorraine E. · December 10, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Great post, Chari! I’m curious, what database system is PHFS using?


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