Exploring the Non-Profit Paradox – Evaluation and Non-Profits
Hello, I’m Jamie Clearfield from the Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity (CEAC) at the University of Pittsburgh.
Having had the privilege to work with a range of community-based organizations (CBOs) and non-profit organizations in the United States and internationally, I have been continually struck by the ingenuity of organizations to work towards program goals, as well as a lack of understanding of the role of evaluation in the work.
I get it – small community organizations and non-profits are often (if not nearly always) in the fight for their survival – another crisis is always at the end of another email, phone call, or text message. How many times was I working in another country when I would get a text message from the director of a school I work with that the feeding program funding has been cut, we were about to be evicted, or a program partner decided to “go in a different direction”? Incorporating evaluation into the existing chaos – particularly when much of the program staff is unsure of what evaluation is, how it is conducted, or what it can mean for the organization – can be a difficult sell, even to the most innovative of organizations. Yet herein lies the paradox for small CBOs and organizations – evaluation can help avoid the ongoing crisis cycle and can help organizations plan and prepare for the days ahead, while also identifying where programs are succeeding or need to be rethought.
For those working in evaluation, this paradox offers many challenges and opportunities to work with CBOs and non-profits, helping them strengthen and expand their programming to a wider audience. The challenges however are many – among a few are how to reach small organizations that may not understand the need of your services, who may not be able to pay market rates for evaluation, and who may have limited human and social capital to make evaluation a worthwhile endeavor. There is also the challenge of dependency – small organizations may come to rely too heavily on the evaluator to conduct the evaluation year after year, regardless of whether it is the best use of the organization’s or evaluator’s time or resources. Dependency results from a gross misunderstanding of the role of evaluation and whom evaluation really should benefit.
So what are some solutions? There are no zero sum answers to these questions – it is an ongoing trial and error experiment. At the heart of many of these questions is the need to develop strong working relationships between evaluators and CBOs/non-profits. Doing so not only will allow for more candid honest working relationships in the long run, it can also help CBOs/non-profits understand that they are not alone, and that working with an outside entity (an evaluator) can help develop their community. Evaluations firms/evaluators can open the dialogue with CBOs/Non-profits by meeting organizations on their own terms – explaining the role of evaluation in terminology that works for the organization and mapping out, with concrete examples, how evaluation can benefit the organization. It is not merely a question of marketing your services, it is developing a lasting relationship. This may involve attending events hosted by the CBO, organizing meetings with staff, etc. It can be a slow process, however worthwhile.
Thoughts – how can evaluators form better relationships with CBOs/non-profits that result in stronger, more useful evaluations?