four myths about nonprofit program evaluation explained

four myths about nonprofit program evaluation explained

What is your organization’s impact? 

This is a question that every nonprofit should be able to answer. After all, that’s why you started your organization: to change lives and make an impact in your community. And the surefire way to know if you’re making an impact is to create a system for collecting and analyzing data, making sense of the data, and then communicating your results. In other words, your team needs the capacity to engage in program evaluation.

However, many nonprofit leaders are resistant to the idea of program evaluation, and oftentimes the resistance is rooted in a few myths.

We don’t have time for program evaluation. 

Being the leader of a small or medium nonprofit is a LOT of work. You’re responsible for running the program(s), raising money, managing staff/volunteers… the list goes on and on. However, making time to ensure your program is improving is not extra work. It actually helps you do your work better. When you have a clear system for collecting and analyzing data, making strategic decisions rooted in data, and communicating your results… you wind up saving time. And I know you can use more time.

We can’t afford to hire a program evaluator.

It is true that hiring a program evaluator can cost at least $20,000. However, for small to mid-size nonprofits, you may not need that level of support and detail. If you’re just getting started with creating a measurement and evaluation system, it is entirely possible to do so own your own.  (If you need support, check out my book, The Nonprofit Manager’s Data Playbook.)

We don’t need to collect data. My instincts tell me that our organization is successful. 

This myth is one of the hardest to break because as a nonprofit leader, you are in the work and can see for yourself that you’re making an impact. You see people make a complete 180 degree turn and people tell you how much their program has impacted their lives. After all, seeing and hearing these things is what keeps you motivated each day. But, the truth is, that you can’t rely on your gut instincts. What separates good nonprofits from great ones is that they have concrete data that tells them what’s working, what’s not, so they know what to keep doing and where they need to pivot.

We don’t have the resources to invest in creating a system for data collection. 

Data collection systems can cost a ton of money and take a great deal of time to set up. And sometimes even after all the time and financial investment, you still don’t have useful data. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. You and your leadership can decide on which metrics are most meaningful for your organization and build a data collection system that works with what you’re already doing. Combine those with free and low cost tools and you’re good to go! If you need help with creating a system, check out my Data Strategy Workshop and book a consult to see if it’s a good for your organization.




I don’t believe you… you need measurable outcomes!

I don’t believe you… you need measurable outcomes!

One of the many reasons I choose to work with nonprofit organizations is because their intended outcomes are always incredibly inspiring. Each and every day leaders wake up with the intent to change their part of the world, one step at a time.

I mean, who wouldn’t be inspired by outcomes like these?

Decrease childhood obesity 

Increase the number of students who attend college

Decrease gun violence in our community 

But, I’ve also observed that too many organizations (particularly those that have been operating for more than a  few years) don’t go deeper and communicate just how much of an impact they’ve made.

For example, as many of you know, the majority of my professional career has been in the K-12 education field. And at this point, I’ve seen more than my share of organizations that seek to “increase the college going rate” in their community. So much so that my eyes start to glaze over when I read that outcome. Don’t get me wrong, helping to ensure more students have access to postsecondary education is incredibly important.

But, without measurable evidence that the outcome has been met… I’m skeptical.

You know what would help increase confidence? Data that shows whether the outcome was met.

So, instead of saying, “Our program has helped increase the number of students who attend college after graduating,” an organization could say:

“Over the past six years, on average, 80% of students who participated in our program went on to attend college compared to a 20% college going rate among students who did not participate in our program.”

Do you see the difference between the two sentences? Both state that they have met their intended outcome of getting more students to attend college acceptance. But, the second provides measurable evidence of their impact.

And guess what? That’s what separates the great nonprofits from the good ones.

Great organizations know exactly how much of an impact they’ve made.

And with that data, they’re better able to clearly and compellingly communicate their impact, which in turns means more people want to invest in their work because, well… it works.

It’s a simple as that.

Are you a nonprofit leader who needs help with having solid data that shows your organization is helping to change the world?

Book a complimentary consultation with me!

It All Boils Down to Outcomes

It All Boils Down to Outcomes

This week, I wanted to share a quick nugget that came from conversations I’ve had over the past week with staff members at three foundations about a pilot nonprofit program that’s planning to launch soon. 

While the conversations differed, there was one question that each person asked: 

What’s the ultimate outcome of this program?

If you’ve worked with me before, you can probably guess that this question brought me a lot of joy. That’s because I ask a similar question when working with nonprofit leaders. 

When I ask about outcomes, I’m not referring to things like the number of workshops held or the number of people who attended said workshops. Those are activities and while it’s important to measure and report them, they are not sufficient. 

Ultimately, you should always ask yourself: 

  1. Does this program lead to changes in knowledge, behaviors, and skills? 
  2. Did those changes lead to improved quality of life? 

Those are outcomes and you must have a process for collecting, analyzing, and reporting the data about them. (And, yes, you can do this even if your nonprofit is only a few years old.) 

And, look, I know it can be hard to stay focused on outcomes because activities take up so much of your time. But, I strongly encourage you to take a moment and see the forest for the trees. 

Oh, and one more thing. Outcomes aren’t important just because a funder asked for them. 🙂  

Nonprofits are in the business of changing lives and outcomes tell you if you’re doing that. 

After Action Review

After Action Review

As summer comes to a close, many organizations (nonprofit and otherwise) are taking a step back to evaluate their summer work. They’re trying to understand what worked, what didn’t, and where they need to pivot for the future.

So, this week, I wanted to share a simple, yet effective method for helping your team do just that called an After Action Review.

If you’ve worked with me before, you know I LOVE After Action Reviews and think they’re especially useful for nonprofit leaders.

The beauty of nonprofits is that they are poised to quickly respond to community needs. However, one thing that I have observed with clients is that they get so focused on responding that they don’t take time to reflect on what they learned about their work.

It’s like ok, this project is done, let’s move on to the next one, and the next one, and the next one. And that cycle continues over and over again.

As your nonprofit responds to ever changing needs, it’s important to capture what you have learned along the way.

Taking the time to process what happened and document your learning ensures that you don’t waste time reinventing the wheel or continue doing things that are ineffective. 

It also provides you an opportunity to celebrate your successes and leverage them in the future.

Ok, so now you may be asking, ok, Christian, so what is an After Action Review?

An AAR is centered on four questions:

  1. What was expected to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What can we learn from this?
  4. What should we do next time?

So, how it works is, at the end of a project, every person who was involved comes together and answers those four questions. It’s important for everyone who was involved to participate because each person brings a unique perspective into what took place.

An informal After Action Review can be done in as little as fifteen minutes while a formal After Action Review may take one to two hours. No matter the length of time, the purpose is to extract the learnings and plan for the future.

A few things to keep in mind when conducting an After Action Review:

First, consider asking someone who wasn’t involved in the project to facilitate the meeting. This helps ensure that every participant is able to fully engage in the process.

Second, do not see the session as a time to assign blame for what did or did not happen. Instead, remain as objective as possible and simply state the facts.

I know that can be challenging, especially when projects don’t go as planned. But, try to keep in mind that the After Action Review will help you identify barriers to your progress and strategies to overcome them.

So again, here are the four questions that you should answer during an After Action Review:

  1. What happened?
  2. What was expected to happen?
  3. What can we learn from this?
  4. What should we do next time?

I hope this was helpful! And, if you’d like a copy of my After Action Review template, send me a message!

Take This First Step to Make Your Nonprofit Vision a Reality

Take This First Step to Make Your Nonprofit Vision a Reality

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been busy working on creating a program for visionaries who have an idea for a nonprofit program but don’t know where to start. Part of my prep has included interviewing those very people to get an understanding of what questions they have about turning their idea into reality.

Hearing their questions was really eye-opening for me and I wanted to share my recommendation for the first step to take in order to make your vision a reality… And isn’t what you think. 😉

Ok, so the top questions that I heard were: 

  1. How do I file to be a 501(c)3? 
  2. Who should be on my Board?
  3. How do I know this idea will even work? 
  4. Do I have time for this, on top of all my other commitments? 

And, listen, I understand why those questions come up. When you Google, “how to start a nonprofit”  the top pages all give step-by-step instructions which include things like choosing a business name, appointing a Board of Directors, deciding on a legal structure, filing your incorporation paperwork, applying for tax-exempt status, etc.

It is a LOT! You can get tired just reading all of the steps! It becomes clear that leading a nonprofit is a job, requiring considerable commitment, and the decision to start one should not be taken lightly.  

But, guess what? Those steps are not needed to get your nonprofit idea launched. 

Now, I’m NOT recommending that you ignore federal and state laws and regulations. 

But, here’s the thing. You can file all the paperwork correctly and assemble the best people for your Board of Directors. But, those tactical pieces don’t necessarily mean you will have a successful organization.  

Instead, I’m recommending that you start with a test of your nonprofit idea.

Because, frankly, it doesn’t make sense to start a nonprofit if you don’t know if there are a need and demand. 

Instead of focusing on the tactical pieces, focus on getting clear on what problem you’re hoping to solve, who your audience is, what your solution is, and creating a short term test of your idea. Taking this approach is a low risk, potentially high reward situation. 

The risk is low because it means you saved yourself countless hours taking care of the tactical pieces. And the reward is high because you have the potential to positively impact members of your community very quickly.  

Once you know whether or not your idea is needed and wanted, you can decide whether to pursue the idea further, pass it on to someone else, or abandon it altogether. 

Stayed tuned for next week’s message where I share my new program for visionaries who want to start a nonprofit program!

And, if you’re interested in learning more right now, send me a message and I’ll share the details! 

How to Find Data That Supports Your Nonprofit’s Mission

How to Find Data That Supports Your Nonprofit’s Mission

A few weeks ago I asked my email subscribers to share what they struggled with most when using data at their nonprofit. 

I wanted to share a response from someone who says, “I’m at stage one, forming a new nonprofit, so I’d guess finding the right data to use to support our mission is the first step.” 

First of all,  I LOVE this question because it means that this person is planning to use data from the very beginning of their nonprofit journey! The importance of using data regularly is something that some nonprofits don’t understand until a few years down the road. 

Ok, to answer the question, the first thing to keep in mind is that starting a nonprofit is very similar to starting a for profit business. This means that instead of starting with your mission or what your organization is all about, you start with a problem that needs to be solved. And then come up with the solution to the problem, whether that be a product or a service. 

So, my recommendation is to start by identifying data that speaks to your problem, not your mission. 

This data can come from a number of places.

  • It could be anecdotal, such as your own observations of things you’ve heard or seen in your community.
  • Another data source is to talk to people, whether that be one-on-one interviews or focus groups.
  • You might also create a survey to get an understanding of people’s experiences.
  • If possible, find quantitative data at the city, state, or national levels that speaks to the problem.

Once you have multiple sources of information, it becomes much easier to make the case your nonprofit. 

Let’s go through a quick example. Suppose that someone wants to create an after school reading program for 3rd grade students. 

This person decided to create this program after tutoring a few students from her local elementary school and found that reading proficiency for the 3rd graders is a cause for concern. (This is the anecdotal data that I mentioned earlier.)

This person then goes to the school district website and finds that 3rd grade reading proficiency scores for their local elementary school are much lower than the entire school district and the state at large. 

Finally, this person decides to dig a little deeper and interview 3rd grade teachers to understand their experiences with teaching reading. After talking to those teachers, they learn that from kindergarten to second grade, students are learning to read. But, by 3rd grade they transition to reading to learn. So, by that point they should already understand the basic mechanics of reading so they can read more complex texts. However, many 3rd graders at your local school are still learning to read. 

This person also comes across a study that found that 3rd grade students who aren’t reading proficiently are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than children who do read proficiently by that time.This gives even more evidence that focusing on 3rd graders at this school is absolutely critical. 

This person now has data from a number of sources to help them speak to why the 3rd reading program is needed at their elementary school. 

Do you have a question about how to use data to support your nonprofit’s work?

Complete this brief survey and I’ll try to answer it!