Shifting the Frame of Evaluation from One of Accountability to Learning

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A Sneak Peek at The Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot

A sneak peek at the Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot

By Amy Latham, Vice President of Philanthropy at The Colorado Health Foundation

If you’ve picked up The Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot: A new approach every staff member can understand, chances are you have at least a passing interest in evaluation and how it can be used to make your work more effective. Perhaps you’ve come to this book out of a sense of dissatisfaction with how evaluation has worked—or not—to improve your nonprofit’s programs or services. Or maybe you are ready to lead a conversation within your organization about how evaluation can increase the impact of your nonprofit in your community.

Here’s why this book is so critical: communities are facing serious, urgent issues on a variety of fronts, and nonprofits cannot afford to waste time, resources, and energy.
— Amy Latham, VP of Philanthropy // Colorado Health Foundation

Unfortunately for many folks working in the social sector, the word “evaluation” conjures negative reactions—worries about finger-pointing, concerns about funder reactions, or fear of negative public perceptions if the results aren’t all positive. Deciding to evaluate your program’s effectiveness, and then figuring out how to do it, can be a daunting proposition. But it shouldn’t be. It’s the simple act of asking what’s working, what’s not working, and why. It can lead to profound insights and, ultimately, improvements to our work that increase the impact we are having in the communities we are here to serve. Who wouldn’t want to take part in that? How different would our world be if we all used the approach that Elena Harman advocates here—asking ourselves smart questions, thoughtfully aligning our approaches to answering those questions, and then collectively using the information that we gather to make informed decisions for improvements? Reading this book has affirmed my belief in, and ignited my passion for, evaluation as a tool for increasing impact.

I’ve been working in the nonprofit field for nearly twenty years. In that time, I’ve worn many hats, including executive director, communications manager, development person, and board member. Elena’s advice on how evaluation can contribute to the effectiveness of each one of these roles, as well as the unique vantage point that each plays in effective evaluation, is both insightful and practical. For the last ten years, I’ve worked at a health foundation that is fortunate enough to have a wonderful evaluation team whose members serve as critical learning partners to the program staff. I’ve come to understand that I’ve been fortunate in my experience with evaluation and that much of the field is stuck in the accountability frame that Elena advocates against so articulately in this book. The field of nonprofit evaluation is evolving in positive ways. Nothing, however, is quite the breath of fresh air as Elena’s unequivocal call to shift the frame of evaluation from one of accountability to learning. She offers simple tips that provide easy ways to get started no matter your role or your experience with evaluation.

I had the pleasure of working with Elena when she was fresh out of college—excited about her role as an evaluator at the foundation we worked for and brimming with enthusiasm and ideas for how we could use data to improve our work. At that time, I recognized but didn’t fully understand Elena’s passion for evaluation. Flash forward eight years, and I’m sitting in a room with Elena, who now owns her own business. She is helping our foundation team examine the impact of our funding in the area of access to primary care. Light bulbs are going off for me right and left as I digest the “data sandwiches” that Elena and her team have developed. I’m thinking of ways we can apply what we learned to our work going forward, and I cannot wait to share the results with other staff, with my boss, with our board. Because we sat together with Elena and her team to develop the evaluation questions, there was not just interest, but a hunger for the data that her team would find. The approach absolutely guaranteed that the evaluation data would be used by our team in trying to improve our funding approaches.

Here’s why this book is so critical: communities are facing serious, urgent issues on a variety of fronts, and nonprofits cannot afford to waste time, resources, and energy. We need to know what’s working; we need to identify ways that we can improve; and we need to be doing this all the time, on an ongoing basis. It’s in that spirit that Elena offers a guide that anyone working in the nonprofit sector could pick up, read in a couple of hours, and start putting to use immediately. It’s a small investment in the effectiveness and impact of the work we do, but well worth it.


This post originally appears as the forward to our CEO and Founder Dr. Elena Harman’s new book, The Great Nonprofit Evaluation Reboot: A new approach every staff member can understand, which is now available on Amazon. Get more tips on how to measure what matters by signing up for our newsletter and following us on Twitter and Facebook. If you are in Colorado, we’d love to see you at our book launch party on February 12! Attendees receive a 25% discount on the purchase of the book.


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Amy Latham | Vice President of Philanthropy at The Colorado Health Foundation

Amy is passionate about opportunity — more specifically, creating opportunities for all Coloradans to live healthy, fulfilling lives. Amy has been with The Colorado Health Foundation since 2008, serving as program officer and in communications roles before her current position. She loves being part of an organization with a meaningful mission that reflects her belief in the greatest good for the greatest number.


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