Building a Culture of Program Evaluation by Chari Smith

Chari Smith is the President of Evaluation into Action (EIA), located in Portland, Oregon. She believes program evaluation should be accessible, practical, and usable. EIA provides evaluation services including design, data collection, analysis, reporting, and usage. Chari has taught several workshops helping nonprofit professionals understand the value and use of program evaluation.

Note: The following blog post is a modified excerpt from Evaluation into Action’s white paper: Building a Culture of Evaluation.

The intersection of program evaluation and organizational culture is critical to understand. How a nonprofit organization feels and thinks about evaluation may dictate their behavior around doing it out of a mandate because funders require it or a desire to learn because data provide insights.

“Organizational culture is a complex tapestry made up of attitudes, values, behaviors, and artifacts of the people who work for your nonprofit.”

Happy Healthy Nonprofit (2017) by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman.

It can be complex. Values and attitudes drive behaviors that make up the culture of an organization. For example, if organization staff value data as a learning opportunity, it is likely to have a culture of evaluation. If they do not, it is likely to be a culture of compliance.

If you’re an external evaluator, where do the programs you work with fall on this spectrum? It’s important to understand that before planning the work. Otherwise, barriers and resistance will crop up as you trudge uphill to put program evaluation into motion.

If you’re a nonprofit professional or internal evaluator – where does your program staff fall on this spectrum? It’s probably a wide range, from those that are enthused, to those that are not.

The motivation to do program evaluation impacts how nonprofits successfully collect and use data. Wherever a program lies along this spectrum impacts its ability to build a culture of evaluation which, in turn, affects its ability to successfully perform and use evaluation.

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How does the shift from compliance to learning occur?

Slowly. Building trust, relationships, knowledge, and skills. There are three steps available to help with the process.

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1. Validate: This is a communication tool that’s important in any conversation. Reflecting opinions, rather than refuting them, allows for people to feel heard.

2. Educate: It is important to highlight benefits to the individual as well as the entire organization to promote a change in beliefs toward the value of evaluation. Educating staff on the benefits of program evaluation may alleviate unspoken concerns and increase positivity toward evaluation.

3. Collaborate: Staff may be willing to do evaluation, but unable to collaborate. Evaluators can facilitate collaboration, so that the outcomes are defined by all staff beforehand.

These three steps can help frame the conversation to build a culture of evaluation. By digging deeply to shift attitudes, values, and beliefs, evaluation may be seen as a learning tool rather than a burden.

One thought

  1. Excellent blog, Chari. Thanks for writing this. One way to assure buy-in and relevancy is to collaborate with organizations on defining the action evaluation questions. In that way, the evaluation clearly provides evidence for questions they care about. Looking forward to your presentation at the CS Impact Network meeting on Thursday, May 10.