Focus on evaluation

By Todd Cohen

The New York Women’s Foundation wanted to help the grass-roots New York City nonprofits it funds do a better job evaluating their programs so they could improve the way they deliver services, shape policy and secure funding.

So the foundation hired Innovation Network, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that provides nonprofits and foundations with consulting services and free online tools, all focusing on evaluation.

The foundation’s grantees, which are led and run by women and serve low-income women and girls, learned how to assess their own evaluation systems, set up systems to collect evaluation data, and use that data to help policymakers and grantmakers better understand their work, says Sofia Silao, program officer at the foundation.

“They’ve built their capacity,” she says. “They will to be able to sustain themselves beyond our grantmaking at the foundation.”

Innonet’s work with the foundation reflects its new strategy of integrating its consulting work and its online evaluation tools to create “interactive learning services,” says Allison Fine, its president.

Founded by Fine in 1992, Innonet initially worked as a consultant to assess the work and impact of its nonprofit and foundation clients.

But after five years, Fine says, she found clients needed more than consulting.

“We saw an enormous need and a vacuum,” says Fine, who works from her home in Irvington, N.Y. “There was no technical assistance for nonprofits to help them build their own capacity.”

Innonet concluded it wanted to help put nonprofits “in the driver’s seat” so they could better plan and evaluate their own programs and services.

That decision led to the launch in 1998 of an online “workstation” consisting of free interactive evaluation and planning tools for nonprofits and foundations.

Innonet’s online “logic model builder,” for example, is designed to help a nonprofit determine whether its goals, programs and outcomes are logically connected, and whether the programs are likely to produce the outcomes the nonprofit wants.

And an online “evaluation plan builder” is designed to help a nonprofit figure out the questions it should ask and the kinds of answers it wants so it can determine whether its programs are in fact producing the desired results.

This spring, Innonet launched a new “evaluation engine platform” that converted those tools to open-source programming and added a new “organizational assessment” tool designed to measure an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

Innonet also redesigned its business strategy, integrating its consulting services with its tech tools so it could introduce to its nonprofit clients “a way of working, by using the tools, that can continue after we’re gone,” Fine says.

In its work with the New York Women’s Foundation, for example, Innonet held a series of workshops to introduce 13 of the foundation’s  grantees to its logic model builder, evaluation plan builder and other tools.

After the workshops, each nonprofit completed its own logic model and evaluation plan, and Innonet reviewed the models and plans, and provided technical assistance to help the grantees improve them.

Now, says Silao, the grantees are “able to communicate their outcomes to the larger community and to translate that information to affect policy on the city level and allow them to be more efficient and improve their service delivery and get funding for their programs.”

As part of its new integrated business strategy, Innonet also is providing training and coaching to the Fannie Mae Foundation in Washington, D.C., and to groups of its grantees, and to the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore and evaluators working with some of its grantees.

Innonet also is developing a new suite of tools that move beyond evaluation planning and will be designed to help nonprofits collect, analyze and report on evaluation data.

While it will continue to offer its existing tools for free, Innonet will begin charging for its new tools, Fine says.

Innonet, with a staff of 15 people in Washington, has an annual budget of $2.5 million, and generates half its income from consulting fees and half from foundation grants.

Those grants include $1.1 million combined in 2002 and 2003 from the Omidyar Foundation in Redwood City, Calif., and $700,000 this spring from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif.

Fine says the organization aims by the end of 2006 to cover its costs from revenues generated by a full-range of services, including high-end consulting for clients, although it will continue seeking foundation support to develop new services.

Innonet, for example, currently is evaluating leadership-development consulting in 40 rural communities for the Northwest Area Foundation in Minneapolis.

As part of its new strategy, Innonet recently promoted Fine from executive director to president, and Patrick Corvington from director of consulting and training to executive director.

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