Strengthening the Nonprofit Through Self-Evaluation

The nonprofit sector continually faces demands to evaluate its human service programs. Donors and foundations request documentation of the contribution that a funded program has made to the quality of the recipients’ lives or, for a program focused on broad issues such as the environment, the impact it has had on the greater society. Frequently outside evaluators are hired to measure the results of programs and to present their findings in both qualitative and quantitative terms.

Nonprofit organizations find it difficult to cover the cost of engaging outside evaluators, when that funding is not included in a foundation grant. When a nonprofit is expected to evaluate the funded program with its own resources, this presents a dilemma. Does the nonprofit accept the grant or contribution and absorb the cost of the evaluation? Does the nonprofit seek targeted funding for the evaluation? Or does the nonprofit decide not to accept the funding because of the added burden on the agency?

Engaging in a self-evaluation process is one answer to that dilemma.

One of the most important practices an agency can institute, a self-evaluation process can provide information about the effectiveness of programs and offers a valuable learning experience for the agency board and staff. Incorporated into the ongoing functioning of the organization is an examination of its programs’ effectiveness and efficiency. A self-evaluation process involves both the board of directors and the staff of the organization.

To make the self-evaluation process clearer, let me give you an example. The program committee of the board of directors of a Jewish Community Center recently approved a new program to reach out to intermarried couples in the community. Its aim was to provide an opportunity for the Jewish and non-Jewish spouses to explore their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community. Success was defined by the participants’ feeling they were able to make knowledgeable decisions about the role Judaism was going to occupy in their family life; in other words, their feeling that they had the ability to decide the connection they wanted to have with the Jewish community, if any. A generous donor in the community provided the initial funding for the teacher and the social worker who staffed the program.

A series of workshops were planned that focused on learning about Judaism and providing an opportunity for the participants to examine the nature of the Jewish atmosphere they were creating in the home. Participants were recruited through notices placed in synagogue bulletins and advertisements in the local Anglo-Jewish press. The target audience was defined as those people who had expressed an interest in exploring their connection to Judaism to one or more professionals in the Jewish community, including teachers, rabbis, and youth workers.

The program committee of the board of directors approved this new initiative with the proviso that monitoring and evaluating the program were in place from the very beginning. The JCC director suggested that an ad hoc evaluation committee be appointed composed of both board and staff members. Parallel to the staff planning and initiation of this creative effort, the evaluation committee would be monitoring the development of the program.

The director and the staff, and the board and staff members of the ad hoc evaluation committee, were able to establish a mutual atmosphere of trust. From the outset the staff knew that an evaluation process was part of the board’s agreement to approve the program. More importantly, the staff perceived that the goal of the self-evaluation, in eliciting information from the participants about their experience, was to improve the program.

One of the center’s staff members, who was not assigned to the new program, was given the responsibility to staff the evaluation committee. Following this first series of workshops the committee received the participants’ verbal and written evaluations. The committee members reviewed them among themselves and then with the program staff. The evaluation enabled the participants to provide feedback on their experience in the workshops and classes that could then be used to make adjustments to programs in the future.

The self-evaluation process served a dual purpose. First, it provided information about the program to the program committee of the board of directors, which could use that information to decide whether to continue the program. Furthermore, it was able to demonstrate the program’s efficacy to those on the board who were initially not supportive about reaching out to intermarried couples. It also enabled the board to provide information to the donor as to the success of the program. Second, the self-evaluation process gave the staff insight into how the participants’ experienced their facilitating the sessions and their role in the program. In addition to the staff-led evaluation discussion conducted at the end of the program the written evaluation provided an opportunity for the participations to express their ideas and feelings without having to share them publicly.

The self-evaluation process cannot be implemented in every situation. However, in this example it was an integral part of the program from the very beginning. The JCC was able to strengthen the program for the next cohort based on the evaluation. In this case the donor felt that she had made a worthwhile investment providing the funds so this marginal group could be given the opportunity to affiliate in some way with the Jewish community. The approach can employed when an agency is evaluating programs funded by individual donors, as well as foundations, and other public and private sources of funding for nonprofits.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.