How to Answer Tricky Funder Questions

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Learning to read between the lines

Learning to read between the lines

By Elena Harman

Grant application and donor questions about evaluation can be a nightmare. Here are a few examples of the many prompts that can rattle your cage:

  • What are the measurable outcomes your nonprofit is expecting to achieve?

  • What is your overall approach to evaluation?

  • How do you measure impact?

  • What are some examples of key evaluation results that demonstrate your impact?

  • Can you give me clear and specific anticipated outcomes that would result from my contribution?

  • How much of my donation will go towards programming versus overhead?

When asked these kinds of questions, our brains move toward things that are easy to measure, which is not the same as what really matters. Does the number of people served really capture the impact of your program? What about the changes in the lives of those that you’ve served—where is that captured?

The good news is, you are the expert in your organization’s work. You’ve seen the impact you’re having and the lives you’ve touched. If you provide high-quality, substantive responses—even if they are not quite answering the question that was asked—it can go a long way toward setting your funding request apart. Here are some tips for framing your responses.

Avoid the Indicator Rabbit Hole

When you see a request for specific measurable indicators, or to distinguish between outputs and outcomes, don’t take the bait! Start first with figuring out what you really want to learn about your program and how evaluation can help with that. What do you wonder about your program at night? Which components of the program matter most? Which are you least sure about? Start by developing key evaluation questions to keep the focus of an evaluation on what matters.

Also, remember to stay high-level when crafting evaluation language for a proposal. Focus on your key evaluation questions and a general sense of what types of data will help answer those questions. Avoid promising specific methods and results, especially the kitchen-sink approach of listing everything that you could do.

Align Evaluation Expectations and Resources

I see a chronic mismatch between the evaluation nonprofits want and the resources they have available. Evaluation is not free, whether done by an external evaluator or internally by the organization. Internally run evaluations cost the organization more in staffing time, whereas external evaluations require contracting dollars. And the two are not mutually exclusive: external evaluations still require staff time, most often for planning and data collection, and it can be wise to engage external support to build capacity for internal evaluation.

Consider the capacity of your team, both their evaluation expertise and their bandwidth, before deciding which route to go. The rule of thumb is that evaluation should be 10 percent of the program budget—not the grant budget—or $5,000, whichever is larger. I regularly hear, “But Elena, we don’t have that kind of money for evaluation,” to which I say, “If it is important enough to do, it is important enough to evaluate, and part of your role is advocating for the resources your nonprofit needs.” Funders are asking you for evaluation, so it’s time to ask them to put money behind it.

Treat Evaluation as a Team Effort

Evaluation is a team sport. It cannot be planned, executed, or reported well alone. Be sure to involve program staff, grant managers, your executive director, and perhaps even your board in shaping your evaluation plans. The most important people to collaborate with are those responsible for implementing the program, as well as those charged with making sure the evaluation happens. You need to understand what capacity they have for evaluation, and they need to understand what is being promised in the grant. I also strongly recommend that you consult with an evaluator before submitting any plans. Evaluators can provide an important “reality check” on whether your plans and your resources are aligned.

Remember, even though funders and donors often ask you to quantify things that are too hard (or impossible!) to measure, those questions have a common goal to understand how strategic and functional an organization is. What they really want to understand is how you use evaluation strategically to inform and improve your programming. Tell that story. Talk about how evaluation is integrated into your organization and how the findings are integrated into your program planning.


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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.