Measuring what really counts

by Jini Stolk

When I think about evaluation these days I’m less interested in what we measure or how we measure than in why. What’s the ultimate purpose of the effort we put into evaluating our work and projects? What are we trying to learn? How are we using this information?

I believe that the best use of evaluation is to discover and share how positive change happens.

My ah-ha moment occurred during a Shared Measurement Meeting at last September’s ONN Conference. An entire room full of people talking about whether a shared approach to nonprofit impact measurement would help us better understand and tell the story of our collective impact. Notes from the meeting show that we talked about increased demands from funders, lack of resources and training for evaluation, data collection and technology, collaborative measurement and the need to bring funders into the conversation.

But at one point a former senior government official said, in essence: “government has a hard enough time evaluating their own programs; they’re more likely to care whether a funded program hit its targets than whether it improves society.”

My conclusion is that we are the most important and interested recipients of our evaluation efforts (along with a few enlightened funders), and that we’re going to have to take responsibility for defining the terms, parameters and measures used to evaluate our work.

Our purpose as far as possible should be to use evaluation as a tool for learning, helping us discover the emotional and social value of our work. If our programs really inspire kids, or transform their lives, or provide a path to life-long learning, then we have to share that information so we can all do better at these essential tasks.

There are many wonderful and helpful materials on evaluating arts and nonprofit programs and I’ve listed some of the best below; they’ll soon be up on the Resources section of our website too.

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