What Is Project Evaluation (and Why Should You Do It)?
A couple of decades ago, funders handed out checks without worrying too much about whether the awardee really achieved the goals they’d set for themselves. Today, that’s rarely the case. Most foundations care a great deal about whether their money was well spent, and they often require some form of evaluation to determine whether your approach worked, and how it could be improved.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably a good thing to be held accountable for the good works you’ve envisioned, and for the money entrusted to you. It’s a positive thing to have tangible proof that your organization is working well: such proof will make it much easier to raise money in the future. And if your organization is not as successful as you’d hoped, it’s helpful to actually know where the problems lie, and how best to fix them.
Evaluation can be a simple, do-it-yourself process, or a full-scale, professional study. The choice of how to evaluate a project or program is usually determined by:
- The scope of the project: A tiny one-day event doesn’t warrant big-time evaluation.
- The funding source: Some sources, particularly large foundations, will tell you what kind of evaluation they want to see.
- Your needs: Do you need to prove a concept? Show outcomes to raise money? Or just satisfy your curiosity?
- Your resources: Do you have an evaluator on staff, or the funds to hire someone out of house? Or are you a shoestring operation?
If evaluation is built into the funding for your project, you’re all set. All you need to do is ask for proposals, pick the one you like best, and pay the bills. Your evaluator does the rest.
Most project evaluations, however, are do it yourself projects that require some careful planning and thinking. As project evaluator, you’ll need to understand the tools used to conduct evaluations, so that you can select the most appropriate tools for your particular project.
Tools come in two groups; the best known are quantitative tools, which measure how many, how much, how big, and so forth. Quantitative tools allow you to say things like “500 people attended our event,” “200 people got jobs as a result of our program,” or “grades improved by 20% because of our tutoring services.” Qualitative tools allow evaluators to measure intangible things like awareness, attitude, and appreciation.
In some cases, quantitative tools are all you need, because your project has simple, measurable goals. Typically, these are the straightforward projects that aim to lower or increase something easily measured. For example: increase grades; decrease addiction; increase employment; decrease homelessness. Did it work? To find out, just measure rates within your target audience before and after your program was implemented. Quantitative tools include basic, well known methods such as:
- Head count: How many people attended?
- Testing: Pre and post tests to see how many more correct answers attendees could get after participating in your program.
- Data analysis: What percent of people who attended your program graduated, increased grades, became employed, etc.
- Comparison: How many came to the events before your outreach project; how many came after your outreach project.
More interesting and complex are qualitative evaluations which look at intangible outcomes such as attitude, awareness, and so forth. These measures are used to evaluate projects with goals like “participants will appreciate the importance of textiles as a tool for exploring culture and history” or “participants will become more fully aware of the importance of diet and exercise in maintaining good health.”
While it may seem impossible to actually measure such intangible outcomes, there are tools for doing just that kind of evaluation. You’ve probably used or at least heard of all of them. They include:
- Surveys. Typically, surveys are carefully crafted tools that allow you to take the pulse of a group of people before the start of a project, and then again after the project is completed. Surveys can measure almost anything, from prior and post knowledge of content you’re teaching to attitudes, preferences, achievements, self-esteem… you name it. When you survey your intended audience, you’re setting the bar for success. If your post-program survey shows improvement, you’ve done what you set out to do. Surveys can be conducted in one of several ways: electronically (using online systems like SurveyMonkey), with paper and pencil, or through a person-to-person interview. Electronic surveys offer the great benefit of being easy to distribute and easy to tabulate, but users may share limited information. Paper and pencil surveys are a good way to start a program that requires participants to show up, sit down, and engage in a classroom like situation. Interviews are versatile and flexible, and may gather a good deal of information – but they are time consuming and expensive.
- Observation. How do you know that youngsters are more interested in fine art after a workshop than they were before the workshop? One way to find out is to observe the group prior to and after the workshop. Using a stopwatch, you can compare the amount of time they spend in front of individual works. Listening to conversation, you can hear which words they use to discuss and describe the art. You can also note body language: are they zipping past the works? Stopping to look? Pointing and discussing? All of these observations are data points to help you assess outcomes.
- Case Studies. Your nonprofit is running a program that prepares unemployed individuals for job placement by crafting resumes, building interview skills, honing business skills, and providing career-appropriate clothing. Each week, dozens of people go through the program. You know that X number are getting jobs – but you don’t really know which part of your program is most useful, or how clients feel about their experience. One way to find out is to conduct a series of case studies, in which you choose representative individuals and study them in depth. In the end, you’ll come out with transcripts of interviews, pre- and post-test results, and other data to help you tell the story of how several unique individuals arrived at your door, experienced your program, and either succeeded or failed in reaching their goals.
- Focus Groups. Your youth development program helps teens improve grades, build self esteem, get involved with community service projects, and learn study and workplace skills. You have lots of participants, but you really don’t know how those participants’ attitudes and abilities changed as a result of their experience. To find out, you might run a focus group. A focus group usually consists of 3-5 individuals who, together, represent a cross section of your target audience. Through directed, open-ended questions, you can learn a great deal about how they perceive and are impacted by your program before it begins, as it runs, and after it ends. Focus groups are typically “facilitated” by someone with specific experience, recorded, and transcribed.
- Interviews. Have you ever walked into a museum or zoo and been accosted by a person carrying a clipboard who asks whether you will answer a few questions? If so, you’ve seen the interview process in action. Typically, interviews are used to gather marketing information (who is coming, why are they coming, what are they coming for, are they satisfied, etc.) – but interviews can also be used to assess knowledge, interest, and so forth. For example, a museum might interview visitors to find out what they already know about the Impressionists, what they might like to know, which Impressionists they prefer, and so forth. That sort of information can provide a baseline for later comparison.
Whatever your project or your budget, there are tools available to evaluate your level of success. When you use those tools, you improve your ability to make your case for support, you gain critical information for refining your program, and you build a database of knowledge for developing new programs and projects for the future.