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Nonprofit sector needs to build evaluation capacity

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By Deena M. Murphy

Evaluation capacity-building is the strengthening or building of evaluation systems across the nonprofit sector so that evaluation is regularly conducted and utilized by nonprofits themselves.

This urges the sector to move beyond seeing evaluation as an accountability mechanism toward seeing evaluation as a tool that is use to “improve” rather than “reprove.”

This task requires a systematic, multi-level approach that will facilitate the sector using evaluation as an organizational learning tool.

All nonprofit stakeholders — funders, individual nonprofits, evaluators, academic and training institutions, and the public — will need to collaborate to turn evaluation into an opportunity for learning, rather than judging.

In a recent survey of 284 nonprofit executive directors across North Carolina, we asked nonprofits about a variety of barriers impacting implementation of evaluation and tried to get a sense of what activities and resources they would find useful in terms of building evaluation capacity.

Nonprofits report that, while in theory they know and find evaluation useful, in reality the needs of their consumers and demands of their programs will always receive priority.

In responses to the survey, nonprofits raised comments concerning the need for a more supportive environment in which evaluation can take place.

Nonprofits articulate concerns over whether their funding will be withdrawn if they cannot effectively demonstrate impact.

A 2003 paper by the Effective Communities project emphasized the importance of creating genuine partnerships between nonprofits and grantmakers such as foundations to allow for a stronger culture in which evaluation can be useful to nonprofits and seen less as an accountability mechanism.

One further issue that nonprofits remark upon is the importance of funders investing in capacity-building, or allowing this to be included in grantwriting, or both.

By investing in capacity-building, funders acknowledge the importance of the organization behind the program and recognize the importance of infrastructure to long-term sustainability of both programs and nonprofits.

As the authors of the Effective Communities paper note, “an investment in strengthening an organization is one that increases the organization’s sustainability and ability to make valuable contributions to the community.”

While there are no shortcuts to building evaluation capacity, foundations and other nonprofit funders could play a big role in moving this forward and promoting a dialogue around the issue of evaluation capacity building.

How can funders partner with grantees to turn evaluation into an opportunity for learning, rather than judging?

How can funders help strengthen the mechanisms for feedback on performance into the decision-making process of nonprofits?

Are there ways to consolidate evaluation requirements so that multi-funded agencies are not creating different reports?

These and other questions will help funders think through their role in supporting evaluation capacity building in nonprofits.


Deena M. Murphy is principal research associate at the Institute for Community-Based Research at the National Development and Research Institutes in Raleigh, N.C.

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