In October, we explored the role of stories in talking about the positive impact of our organizations have on our communities. This month, Ned Cooney, program director of the Flathead Nonprofit Development Partnership, continued the conversation about impact and the role of outcome evaluation at November’s Brown Bag, Evaluating the Impact of your Programs. While he discussed the terminology, progression of change and documentation needed in establishing an outcome evaluation program, this summary will focus on the purpose of outcome evaluation.
Outcome evaluation goes beyond “the butts in the seats;” that is, the number of people served by your organization. Outcome evaluation looks at the effect that those services had on the people served. Those effects that occur in the intended beneficiaries are then measured and tracked over a designated time period, according to Cooney. This type of evaluation does not pressure the beneficiary to respond in a specific manner, and allows for the beneficiary to, in fact, report a negative impact. In light of the additional work demanded and possibly negative reports, why engage in outcome evaluation?
Cooney gave four reasons. The first two aims are internal to the organization. We engage in nonprofit work to effect change. Outcome evaluation allows us to determine if we are achieving our mission. Simply put, is our work worth it? Secondly, outcome evaluation allows us to make management decisions. With increased data, we can ascertain and then seek to prevent unintended, negative consequences of our work. Additionally, that data can be used to fine-tune our program offerings to amplify the positive outcomes for our beneficiaries.
The final two aims of outcome evaluation, Cooney mentioned, are external to our organizations. One is practical, and the other is prescriptive. Foundations, government funders and donors – specifically sophisticated major donors – are requesting outcome evaluation. Is the money given actually affecting change? Yet, Cooney reminded the audience, this is an opportunity to be proactive in deciding what outcomes your organization is intending. Imagine the difference this would make for your program. Instead of reacting to the data the funder requires and molding your program to meet those requirements, you can run your programs according to the best practices you know work for this community, and invite these funders to invest in these positive outcomes. Outcome evaluation, therefore, positions your organization to receive needed funding in this age of scarce resources.
Cooney reiterated the purpose of talking about the impact of our programs. We tell stories and show pictures to open hearts toward our organizations. We explain the data from outcome evaluation to convince the brain that investing in our organizations is wise. This inspires hands and voices to support – through dollars, time and advocacy – our organizations in impacting our communities for good.