New Report Urges Re-Thinking One-Size-Fits-All Approach To Nonprofit Evaluations


Issue: March 2011

New Report Urges Re-Thinking One-Size-Fits-All Approach To Nonprofit Evaluations

In a recently released white paper, Public/Private Ventures calls for a comprehensive new approach to evaluating the effectiveness of nonprofit initiatives. In Priorities for a New Decade: Making (More) Social Programs Work (Better), P/PV rejects the rigid, one-size-fits-all model that focuses narrowly on determining a program’s success or failure.

Instead, P/PV proposes an approach that fully engages nonprofit practitioners as partners in evaluation efforts, reflects a deep understanding of local circumstances and constraints, and produces guidelines for evaluation and scaling that support on-the-ground program quality and performance.

Growing budget deficits and a sluggish economy that is leaving more people behind are fueling increasing urgency to make the best use of limited resources. And a whole industry has arisen to evaluate program performance. Too often, however, these evaluations fail to produce information that is of immediate, practical value to programs, funders and policymakers.

“Now more than ever, public and private funders need evidence to show whether the programs they support actually work,” said Nadya K. Shmavonian, P/PV’s president. “With increasingly scarce resources and growing human need, reliable information is needed now more than ever to help funders and policymakers make wise decisions about spending, and to ensure that promising social programs have the fair chance to emerge and evolve smartly over time.”

The new report argues that many evaluations do not provide a road map for how program performance can be enhanced or how strong programs can be offered at a wider scale. This information can only be gleaned by evaluations that consider the program’s stage of development when making assessments.

“Evaluation is a tricky business,” says Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University professor who sits on P/PV’s Board of Directors. “A program’s benefits are often deeply tied to its developmental path. Understanding these and other nuances is vital for evaluations that are truly useful for all involved.”

P/PV’s approach builds on 30 years developing, evaluating and replicating social programs. The new report points out that in order for the nonprofit sector to impact the daunting problems that face high-poverty communities, program evaluations must generate the practical information needed to make programs more effective. This involves:

  • Clearer guidelines about how evaluation can meet the particular needs and contexts of different kinds of programs;
  • Close working partnerships of practitioners, researchers and funders in the design and testing of new program models;
  • Participation of practitioners in the design of evaluations and data collections systems;
  • Practitioners, evaluators and funders working together to develop new ways of assessing program models and basic organizational capacity—and the interplay of the two; and
  • Funders investing in translating evaluation findings into practical lessons and guidance that can improve program performance by practitioners operating around the country.

P/PV will be incorporating the new approach into its work in the coming months, focusing on their areas of longstanding strength—workforce development, criminal justice, and youth development.

Find more information and read the full report here.

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