What Board Members Need to Know about Evaluation

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Setting the groundwork for great partnerships

Setting the groundwork for great partnerships

By Elena Harman

Let’s say you joined a nonprofit board because you want to give back to the community. You care deeply about the nonprofit’s mission, and at some point during your board service, you start to wonder, “Well, are we doing any good?” That’s where evaluation comes in: evaluation is the tool that nonprofits use to assess whether what they are doing is helping improve their communities.

The first step to engaging productively in board conversations about evaluation, is to build a common understanding about it.

This step alone can take multiple tries because boards bring together professionals from an array of industries, and many of those industries have their own version of evaluation. Financial professionals are most familiar with dashboards and measuring actual figures against budget projections. Business professionals are most familiar with key performance indicators and setting SMART goals for product development. Lawyers are most familiar with thresholds of truth in terms of logical and convincing arguments, and using data from physical evidence, expert testimony, and witness testimony. Each of these professionals brings a unique background to a conversation about evaluation in the nonprofit boardroom and, suddenly, you have a room full of people saying similar words to express different concepts.

It’s really important to spend time understanding what evaluation is, how it is used in the context of nonprofit work, and the value of implementing meaningful evaluation strategies.

So, what’s the best way for board members to conceptualize evaluation?

Evaluation in a nonprofit context is more often than not unlike evaluation in board members’ professional and personal lives. In their professional lives, most board members think of evaluation in terms of monitoring impact, financial evaluation or return on investment, and personnel evaluation or performance management. Which one comes to mind first when you think of evaluation? All three of these examples assume a lens of accountability: making sure that someone or some nonprofit is doing what it says it is.

Because nonprofit work is so messy, an accountability approach is detached from reality and a waste of time for both the board and the nonprofit staff. And, unfortunately, an accountability approach is not net-neutral.

But nonprofit work is messier than that—it’s rarely clear what “should be doing” is. Changing social outcomes and contexts is complex and very few nonprofits have a simple causal link between what they do and the changes they see in the world. For example, literacy programs that seek to increase students’ reading proficiency on the surface seem simple: you tutor kids at a critical age and their reading scores increase. But in reality, that logic underestimates all the other things happening in kids’ lives, like their teacher, their interest in the material, their lives outside the classroom, and even something like how severe the flu season is that year.

Because nonprofit work is so messy, an accountability approach is detached from reality and a waste of time for both the board and the nonprofit staff. And, unfortunately, an accountability approach is not net-neutral: it can actually do serious damage to the relationship between a nonprofit board and the nonprofit staff, which is counterproductive to enhancing the nonprofit’s effectiveness. Think about the assumptions behind taking an accountability lens to evaluation: evaluation as accountability implies that there is a right way of approaching this work, that the board knows what that is, and that the staff are simply not doing it right.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the nonprofit staff. Is that a relationship that would help you do your job better? Instead, I encourage board members to think of themselves as partners in the learning journey that is evaluation. Instead of approaching evaluation by setting strict guidelines about what should be done and asking the staff to report on whether or not those things are happening, work with the nonprofit staff and jointly select the priority learning questions to guide the evaluation work.

A learning-oriented evaluation that’s rigorous and defensible is the secret to making good nonprofit evaluation magical. At the end of the day, nonprofit evaluation is a process of systematically understanding whether your nonprofit’s programming works. And if so, why does it work? For whom? Under what conditions? And how can we make it better? The answers to these questions not only can help you monitor mission achievement, but they can also motivate funders and donors, improve services, and increase your impact in the community.


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Elena Harman, PhD | CEO

Elena is the author of The Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot: A New Approach Every Staff Member Can Understand. She pushes everyone around her to think bigger about what evaluation can be, and how it can help improve our communities. Elena brings a deep expertise of systems, nonprofits, and foundations, as well as how to engage diverse audiences in a productive conversation about evaluation.


Elena Harman