The state of evaluation

Evaluation is the second lowest organizational priority for most nonprofits, ranking only higher than research, and less than a quarter of nonprofits devote the recommended five percent of their budget to evaluation.

Surprised? Or is this in line with your experience?

Evaluation rarely plays the role in nonprofits we imagine it should. For many organizations, it’s just too far from day-to-day needs and activities. Others have spent considerable resources on slick evaluation reports that stay on a hard drive rather than getting any use. Still others go through the motions, writing surveys, collecting responses, but secretly skeptical the data is really meaningful.

The nonprofit evaluation firm Innonet recently released its State of Evaluation 2010 report. (Click on “Download the report” to access the PDF.) The survey, based on responses from more than 1,000 nonprofits across the country, was designed to capture insights on the current role of evaluation in the sector—how nonprofits think about it, how they conduct it, and what they do with it.

According to the report, nonprofits see evaluation as 1) an opportunity to promote their organization; 2) a tool for strategic management; or 3) a resource drain and distraction.  The authors conclude that while nonprofits are “using the data and findings they generate in ways that strengthen their organizations,” there is a lack of “support, capacity, and expertise [needed] to harness the power of evaluation.”

The authors say the report is intended to collect baseline information for further research. It would have been useful to read more about how nonprofits learn and build evaluation skills, and the ways in which evaluation actually informs their operations, program development, and strategic planning. The report also doesn’t specify much about the scale or level of evaluation—organizational, program-level, short- vs. long-term, etc.

At the Alliance, we’re always trying to learn more about members’ needs when it comes to evaluation. What kind of training and support would help you conduct evaluations that are affordable and effective?

Below we’ve summarized key findings from the Innonet report:  (All findings refer to 2009.)

  • 85% of nonprofits conduct evaluation.
  • 13% have one full-time staff person devoted to evaluation.
  • Large organizations are more likely to evaluate their work than small ones.
  • Professional evaluators are responsible for only 21% of evaluations.
  • 73% of organizations that have worked with an external evaluator ranked the experience as “good” or “excellent.”
  • Less than a quarter of organizations devote the minimum recommended amount of their budget (5%) to evaluation.
  • Half of organizations have a logic model/theory of change, with large organizations more likely to revise it and keep it up-to-date.
  • Quantitative methods are used more frequently than qualitative methods.
  • Outcomes/impact evaluation is ranked as the highest priority form of evaluation.
  • Funders are named the highest priority audience for evaluation.
  • The most-named barriers to evaluation across the sector include limited staff time, insufficient financial resources, and limited staff expertise.
  • Evaluation is the second lowest organizational priority, ranking only higher than research.
  • More than a third of nonprofits say funders don’t support any of their evaluation work.
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