Insights for Grantseekers: Program Evaluation
A hallmark of program excellence is a comprehensive and consistent plan for assessing and improving the program's impact. As grant-makers, GOSV staff members have the opportunity to review many evaluation plans at the start of a grant period, and then work with program staff as they implement their activities during the program year.
What is evaluation?
Program evaluation is a process of ongoing programmatic learning and development. Evaluation as learning includes asking good questions to get at a service program's effectiveness; gathering information that empowers staff to take appropriate action; and sharing the information to make decisions that move the program to new levels of excellence.
Program evaluation systems should connect to and flow from the agency's overall evaluation and management systems. Evaluation goals, tools, and systems should foster a sense of learning and renewal for the program, not recrimination and blame. Program evaluation should be ongoing, and agency staff should incorporate reporting on the results of program evaluations in all marketing and communication activities.
What should be evaluated?
The best program evaluation plan will combine all four of these levels.
1) Output Statistics
Count the discrete data that shows program activities. This data includes, but is not limited to:
- number of volunteers involved in your program,
- number of clients served,
- number of workshops given, trees planted, meals delivered, etc., and
- dollar value of donated volunteer time.
This level is important to show activity - but it's not the end of the evaluation road.
2) Customer Feedback
The next level of evaluation is to seek input from the people served by your program (called customers or clients). Ask your customers to tell you what they think about the services you provide and ask them to suggest improvements. This is a measure of customer satisfaction.
This level will tell you what people think about what you're doing; and you can obtain excellent recommendations for improving your services.
3) Standards-Based Comparison
Compare the operation of the program to objective management standards created by an outside body. Examples of outside bodies include the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations and the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association. Find standards for your field - no matter what it is - and assess how well you match up to those standards.
This level of evaluation tells you how well you do when compared to your peers and/or the leaders in your field.
4) Outcome-Based Evaluation
Measuring the discrete planned change in the recipients of program services, this evaluation will provide the best way to determine whether your program accomplished its mission. If you're tutoring students, measure how much their skills improved as a result of your program.
This final and most important level of evaluation will answer the question that keeps us all up at night: what difference are we making in the lives of the people we serve?
Again, the strongest evaluation plans - and most effective agencies - routinely gather information in all of these different areas, analyze and apply this information directly and quickly in their current programming, and then share what they learn with their clients, partners, and funders.
Where can I find more information?
The information in this article was heavily influenced by Volunteer Management: Mobilizing all the Resources of the Community by Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch.
In addition, the National Service Resource Center provides extensive evaluation planning and implementation tools. These materials are relevant for all organizations and are available at no cost at www.nationalserviceresources.org.