Posted on August 17, 2016
by Katsuji Imata
The world of nonprofit organizations is not the only one in which people try to avoid evaluations. People say that they are too busy with their daily grind and cannot possibly find the time. They say that these things come with too much jargon, such as “relevance” and “effectiveness,” and the demands to quantify things and turn them into numerical values can be too complicated and difficult. Or they say it is emotionally upsetting when outsiders come in and criticize them with no understanding of their circumstances.
On top of everything else, nonprofit organizations bear an extra burden of usually not being able to include evaluation costs in their budget. They wonder, “When funding is tight as is, why must we allocate our own funds for evaluation?” This may be the most legitimate argument of all. Or so it seems on the surface, at least.
On the other hand, there are some sectors, like universities and social welfare agencies, which still fall under the not-for-profit umbrella, for whom evaluations are a matter of course. This is why a community of evaluation experts exists, as well as academic associations and other organizations for researchers and practitioners of evaluation. Evaluation is also regularly done in the field of international development, in which I have mainly worked for many years.
I should probably simply tell you that evaluation is important. What I have learned from dealing with evaluators while working in the international development circle is that evaluation is not just having an outsider judge your project as good or bad (which does happen sometimes – this is called “summative” evaluation). Rather, we should view evaluation as a tool that can be used by an organization to discover areas of learning and to help share those lessons.
Evaluation can be roughly divided into two types: organizational evaluation and project evaluation. Both are equally important, but let us take a look at project evaluation here. In 2013-14, I was involved in the first stage of the evaluation of the “NPO Capacity Development Project” (whose evaluation report and case study in English are available here), which was organized by the Japan NPO Center (JNPOC) with financial support from World Vision Japan. The project itself was implemented by the JNPOC from May 2012 to July 2013 following a preparation period, and it targeted nonprofit organizations in the three disaster-affected prefectures (Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima) with the objective of building organizational capacity and developing leadership. Since I was not directly involved in the project, I became involved in the evaluation process as a third-party evaluator.
This process has taught me a lot about the conditions of nonprofit organizations in disaster-affected areas, the passion of those who work for such organizations and the difficulties they experience, and the issues that existed in the region prior to the disaster. This experience has also reinforced my understanding of why evaluation is important; in particular, it is important for learning and sharing. Three aspects can be highlighted:
The first benefit of evaluation is raising effectiveness and efficiency. When you learn the basics of evaluation, you can improve the management of your programs. For example, let’s say that you are formulating a new program. While you are planning, you identify the objective of the program, craft an accurate statement of the objective, and share this with your staff. The next step is to clearly express what outcomes are necessary for the program to meet that objective, and how the outcomes are measured using which indicators. This is an evaluative process. You may think of evaluation only in terms of a postmortem process after a program has ended. However, it is only when outcomes and indicators are discussed and agreed upon in the beginning during the proposal and formulation of the program that you can design the right indicators to use in evaluation later on. When you utilize this framework, you will be conscious of the path that your program needs to take to achieve its objective, and you will be able to take ownership of this process because you have articulated it clearly. This is called a theory of change. Instead of the program haphazardly running its course, it will now be supported by a stronger awareness of the intended outcomes.
The second benefit is the provision of evidence. In the modern era, providing evidence is a must. When you implement a program and it yields good results, you hope that it will be treated as a successful precedent and used for replication, and in policymaking. These days, there is a strong call for “evidence-based” policymaking. In other words, if your project has been evaluated, then you can make policy recommendations based on credible evidence. For example, I believe that the aforementioned NPO Capacity Development Project’s evaluation process has successfully contributed evidence to the discussion of the so-called “accompaniment” style of support, which is currently being discussed in many circles of social work.
This third reason is the most straightforward. As is the case with anything we experience, there is no growth without reviewing and learning. We must also not forget that there is also enormous enjoyment that comes from learning something. In a word, evaluation is rewarding.
For all of you who are still skeptical of doing evaluations for your organization, I urge you to reconsider. As for all of you funders and donors, would you consider allowing a budget line of your project grants to be used for evaluation?
*This essay was re-written in 2016 based on the original essay for “Shiten-Ronten” (Our Perspective, Our Point) on the JNPOC Japanese website on May 2014