Moving beyond accountability

By Deena M. Murphy-Medley

Economic uncertainty and intensified competition for funding have led to increased demand for resource accountability throughout the nonprofit sector.

The public, government representatives, foundations and other nonprofit funders need to ensure that the programs they fund have value for the public, while volunteers, who devote valuable time to programs, want to know whether they really are making a difference in the lives of their community.

While this mounting emphasis on accountability may have initially spurred the interest of nonprofits in evaluation, nonprofit leadership is increasingly seeing evaluation as a useful learning organization tool.

A well-planned and systematic measurement of programs and services can provide critical information to the nonprofit sector.

Program staff can identify how programs are performing and how they can improve services, while nonprofit leaders have sufficient information to make evidence-based policy decisions.

An organization that uses evaluation successfully is an innovating organization as it can clearly articulate inputs, activities, outputs and outcomes, and use these findings to adapt, improve and become more effective.

Making evaluation an organizational learning tool means that results must be perceived as beneficial and therefore utilized.

Many evaluation experts emphasize that engaging key stakeholders in the evaluation effort will increase the likelihood that findings will be used and will reflect the diverse perspectives of an organization.

Nonprofit organizations often report staff resistance to program evaluation due to complaints that time taken to evaluate distracts from beneficial program activities.

Including key stakeholders in the planning process may reduce this resistance and help build organizational support for the implementation of any evaluation.

So how can an organization ensure evaluation is relevant to its needs?

Asking key questions is critical when designing an evaluation as it encourages organizations to clarify what information is essential to organizational learning and realistically assess what resources are available.

Questions that an organization should be able to answer prior to any evaluation include:

* What is the purpose of the evaluation?

* Who is the audience for the information?

* What type of information is needed?

* Who has access to that information?

* How can information be collected efficiently?

* What is the time frame needed?

* What organizational resources are available to conduct this process?

Asking these questions during the planning stages will result in a focused evaluation design that should provide valuable information that will assist nonprofit leadership in strategic planning efforts.

This could be the difference between a nonprofit using, not shelving, results.

Deena M. Murphy-Medley is a research and program associate with the Institute for Nonprofits and a doctoral candidate in psychology at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

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