Welcome to Our Evaluation Conversation

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Fueled by increased pressure from funders and the public to prove the worth of the work we do, the nonprofit sector has recently taken a heightened interest in evaluation. In the past, three evaluation methodologies predominated. One method measured how many and what kinds of activities are accomplished. This type of evaluation is focused on monitoring and has little meaning in terms of end results. The second method measured program impact through expensive experimental studies that included such testing mechanisms as control groups. Both methods have serious limitations in terms of providing timely, useful, and affordable information for practitioners. Finally, program practitioners have created evaluation/planning practices where they plan and take action, reflect on observable outcomes, ask themselves critical questions, and redesign practices.

Now we are beginning to bring all these forms of practice together. Formerly marginalized, highly practical evaluation techniques that emphasize the inclusion of program participants and staff in the development of questions and solutions, and that recognize the importance of timely and accurate information in the development of excellent programs, are now gaining increased acceptance, complementing the basic reporting and the experimental models. Because the practice of evaluation is in transition, the dialogue around it is confusing and complicated. For this reason we have doubled our feature section to adequately offer nonprofit leaders clearer examples of current thinking.

The first four articles speak to orientation and perspective about evaluation. Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Roger’s words offer a down-to-earth perspective about how measuring is meant for gathering feedback, providing important information to those who willingly come together to struggle in the common work that they love.

Carole Upshur offers an easily understood grid laying out the five major categories of evaluation. She also discusses the soul of evaluation–validity and accuracy.

Ricardo Millett offers a national perspective on the trends in evaluation and the implications for the increased emphasis on evaluation for small to mid-size organizations.

Frances Padilla examines the shifting perspectives of private foundations and their relationship to evaluation.

The next articles cover the practice of evaluation from the perspectives of those who have started to implement it.

La Alianza Hispana staff share their change process and vividly describe what part evaluation plays in their day to day work. Judy Freiwirth and Elena Letona critique the United Way’s outcome measurement model. Through that process, you will see what one model of participatory evaluation looks like for two organizations that have begun to use it.

How do you use feedback to inform and improve programs when faced with resistance and other roadblocks? Barry Dym and Francine Jacobs offer constructive suggestions regarding readiness for change.

Anna Madison concludes our conversation with a challenge to those promoting and practicing evaluation–where’s the larger concern for mission attainment? It appears to be missing from many evaluation conversations, which are often focused on single programs. This omission is ironic since, in this sector, effective attainment of our mission is our bottom line.

Mary F. (Molly) Weis

Associate Editor