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?
Jamie is spot on. I am sharing this around my regional measurement collaborative in order to help us focus on the issues she has raised and with which we also struggle. Behind the tools we use as evaluators, effective evaluation – the sort that builds capacity – really is an art. It is hard to define art.
Thanks for sharing Jamie’s thoughts with your regional measurement collaborative. I agree, Jamie is spot on!
Please let us know whether you or your colleagues have any responses to Jamie’s question — how can evaluators form better relationships with CBOs/non-profits that result in stronger, more useful evaluations? I bet we can put our heads together and uncover some solutions.
Thanks again, Ann
Fantastic post! We have a breakout session planned for our upcoming conference (http://oregoneval.org/events/conference/) on this very topic: Building a Culture of Evaluation in Non Profits. Will be sharing this with the group running that session!
I have found that starting small and being very patient with small CBOs is effective in building good relationships. Instead of approaching an organization with the question, “How can I teach you about evaluation?,” I go into the conversation with the question, “What are you trying to do and how can I help you do it?” Initially assessing capacity is necessary to determine what an organization is ready for, but also what makes the most sense. Small CBOs may not be able to afford market rates for evaluation because they’re not ready for that scale of evaluation yet. I typically start small CBOs with capacity-building support and facilitate them through internal evaluation efforts to keep costs low and ensure that I am matching their current level of organizational and evaluation capacity. This builds trust, as the staff and management see that they are able to do more than they thought and have increased value for the idea of evaluation (because they’re starting to do it themselves). Inexpensive infrastructure building is necessary to help keep cost and burden low, while increasing the organization’s internal capacity to conduct evaluation in the long run.
[…] one of my favorite evaluation blogs, Emery Evaluation, featured a guest post that got me thinking. Exploring the Non-Profit Paradox – Evaluation and Non-Profits [Guest post by Jamie Clearfield] reminded me that I’ve long thought there exists a dearth of program evaluation in public […]