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Lessons Learned from Day-to-Day, Real-Life Evaluation for Small- and Medium-Sized Nonprofits by Maryfrances Porter

I’m Maryfrances Porter, Ph.D., CEO and Founder of Partnerships for Strategic Impact, and one of the ImpactStory coaches. We have spent the last 15+ years coaching, training, and supporting small- to medium-sized nonprofits in telling masterful impact stories.

The nonprofits we work with are big enough to care about data, but not big enough to have internal data staff. They often hire consultants to do larger one-time projects: most often for grant writing or strategic planning facilitation, and sometimes they hire an evaluator to help them create a logic model or surveys. The nonprofits we work with are not looking to take a deep dive into whether their program works or to partner with scientists to do research. What they are looking for is honest, actionable feedback from clients that they can use in fundraising. And we think that’s ok.

Lessons Learned

Nonprofits are practitioners, not scientists. Nonprofits rarely have a mission to prove their programming works, their mission is to deliver excellent programming that helps people. Like a physician who prescribes an evidence-based treatment and then monitors their patient’s wellness, nonprofits should be using evidence-based interventions and then monitoring clients improvement.

Nonprofits are not responsible for long-term impact. Nonprofits are not funded, as scientists are, to do longitudinal research. This is a great reason for using evidence-based interventions which are expected – based on science – to result in long-term impacts. This means nonprofits can focus their precious resources on measuring the immediate impact for the people they serve.

Nonprofits must articulate why what they do is expected to work. Evaluation consultants are uniquely skilled in helping nonprofits do this! Sometimes it’s as easy as creating an annotated citation for a well-known evidence-based program (such as the Abecedarian Project). However, very often, this involves writing a solid defense for how an evidence-based program has been adapted for a specific population and/or pulling together scientific research that supports the approach (e.g., evidence-informed programming).

Nonprofits need support in understanding and using their data and telling their impact story. Anyone reading this knows that articulating the reason why programming is expected to work is really just the first step in helping nonprofits figure out what immediate impact to collect and then how to use that data – not just for fundraising – but even more importantly, for monitoring and improving program delivery.

Rad Resources

Here are a few resources anyone can use to articulate why programming is likely to work, all of which (and more) can be found in our Resource Library.

  • The Promising Practices Network on Children, Families and Communities provided information on programs and practices that credible research indicated are effective in improving outcomes for children, youth, and families. Here are summaries of Programs That Work (as of June 2014, when the project concluded).
  • US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation: Self-Sufficiency, Welfare, and Employment Portfolio addresses innovative approaches for increasing economic self-sufficiency and reducing welfare dependency, including rigorous evaluations of promising employment strategies.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Day-to-Day, Real-Life Evaluation for Small- and Medium-Sized Nonprofits by Maryfrances Porter”

  1. I work as a data analyst at a small non-profit that is staffed by passionate, dedicated, and agile employees. While I understand the need and purpose to adopt evidence-based programming, doing so can stifle innovation. Providers working on the ground are often the best suited to quick adaptations and innovative new solutions. It is often years before a “promising practice” gets turned into an evidence based program and who bears the burden of producing that evidence? I feel like this is a major issue in our field. From my experience, evaluation that produces credible evidence tends to happen at the state or in academic settings and our mission is, as you say to “deliver excellent programming to help people”. How do we bridge that gap?

    1. Hi Amanda,

      I didn’t even look at the comments to this blog until just now, as I set about writing another one. The question you’re asking is obviously critical. Honestly, even when there is an evidence-based program it’s often been researched in a different population and definitely at a different time in history (e.g., how has the rise of computers and the digital divide impacted what we know about high quality early preschool; or more recently, how has COVID changed the landscape of finding work).

      For these reasons, I advise the nonprofits and their funders, to create a statement of why their programming is informed by science (evidence-supported programming). Even when people are innovating, they are most often doing things they expect to work for some reason or another – they are not painting people purple, they are offering programming that is reasonably expected to achieve a result. Sometimes this is radically adapting an existing program (e.g., offering an individual program in a group setting), sometimes they are adding something very important to a program that might even have evidence not to work (e.g., paying people to get the services), and sometimes they are really innovating and creating something new but which clearly solves a problem (e.g., this was done a lot in COVID). Personally, I have never encountered a nonprofit doing something so far out of the box that there wasn’t some indication it would work (e.g., no one is painting people purple and expecting that to reduce substance abuse).

      If you look around at publicly available resources, you can usually find some that back up the approach you’re taking as resulting in the impacts you are seeking. This does take a little more research and some careful reading, but it’s achievable. I have some sample statements here (https://impactstorycoaching.com/product-category/resources-tools/ see Affordable Housing), and lots of resources for pulling together what works here (https://impactstorycoaching.com/?sfid=2356&_sft_category=2-programming-that-works).

      I’d be really glad to talk more: porter@psi-consult.com

      I hope this is helpful! Maryfrances

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