Strengthening your program’s impact comes from evaluation

By Covita Moroney

In working with our clients, particularly in the context of organizational assessments, Lee+ Associates team members consistently encounter nonprofit leaders who fully embrace the importance of demonstrating their program’s impact. My work with a current client (and past experiences as a nonprofit manager) quickly surfaced this core fact: most nonprofit staffs are completely occupied with the planning and delivery of their programs, and have little time to design and implement data systems for program evaluation and/or need increased expertise and analytical capacity to operate robust evaluation efforts.

President and COO of the San Antonio Area Foundation Rebecca (Becca) Brune recently shared her thoughts about data and nonprofit sustainability for this article. I was fortunate to work for Becca at Methodist Healthcare Ministries, and learned to listen attentively when she shared her insights and reflections on community, nonprofit program evaluation, and sustainability.

Prior to our meeting, I emailed Becca a question that nonprofit managers would want answered by a foundation leader with her depth of national and local experience: ‘Regarding nonprofit financial sustainability, what one area of information (data) has the most potential to strengthen a nonprofit, if collected and analyzed properly? Why is that factor so pivotal?’

In our meeting, Brune zeroed in on this point: “For nonprofits, your efficiencies, sustainability, and scale come from the strength of their program. How do you strengthen programming? Through Evaluation.” She shared that analytics is not just about funders being able to quantify return on investment and impact in a community. “Analytics and tracking outcomes is about agencies improving the services they offer. And there’s not a single nonprofit out there who doesn’t want to do that. Nonprofits represent a critical mass of data – a gold mine of information to better optimize interventions and impact”

Brune noted that only the strongest nonprofits with financial reserves and technological sophistication can direct resources to sustain the data infrastructure required for evaluation—the skills, tools, and knowledge to implement best practices. “The strong get stronger while others continue to struggle.” Drawing a Venn diagram, Becca addressed a possible path forward: “We’ve got three spheres — nonprofits, funders, and the community. There needs to be dialog between funders and nonprofits about analytics. And it may primarily be a conversation that funders need to have among themselves.”

Funders like the Area Foundation have begun exploring how best to support the development of technical skill sets and tools for evaluation—to empower agencies to truly demonstrate progress on a community issue. For example, San Antonio agencies who partner with SA2020 may receive new support to improve their evaluation practices for program metrics that align with SA2020’s shared outcome indicators. A two-year grant from the Kresge Foundation was awarded to SA2020 in support of its mission to track the city’s progress in key areas.

We at Lee+ Associates hope this commitment to program evaluation continues as we work with clients to achieve sustainability through Campaign Management, Human Resource Development, and Operational Capacity Building, including data systems and management. Our team has worked on both sides of the nonprofit/funder table, including qualified individuals helping agencies increase their capacity to collect and analyze data—creating evaluation frameworks that align with best practices, funder requirements, and SA2020 outcome indicators.

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