Your grants budget should include evaluation

Evaluation and fundraising are two very different worlds. There is a dangerous trend in the social sector to conflate evaluation with fundraising. To be very clear, the skillsets and objectives of an evaluator are different than those of a grant writer and fundraiser, as well they should be.

I care a lot about improving evaluation, and data literacy, in the social sector. It is the only way we will be able to move beyond our current level of collective impact (whatever that level is). As a firm that specializes in helping organizations learn from their evaluative metrics, I often struggle with the best way to position our work.

On the one hand, our customers are significantly more competitive in grant applications because they have a better approach to understanding their outcomes, and improving programming accordingly, than other agencies. But while our customers enjoy a competitive advantage in grant applications, my partner and I have always resisted the urge to encourage organizations to work with us to improve their financial bottom lines.

The reason we have resisted drawing a relationship between fundraising and evaluative metrics is because our job is not to help organizations “tell their story” or “prove an organization is a great non-profit”. We try to help our customers learn from the reality of their program impact (or lack thereof), and to improve their programming based on as true an estimate as we can get of the effects of their interventions.

The fact is that funders are desperately looking for any evidence that their dollars are making a difference in the world. That is why our clients are more competitive in grant applications, because they can demonstrate an enhanced capacity to evaluate their outcomes and learn from their mistakes. This is not the same thing as demonstrating that they are awesome, rather, it is signaling that they are capable of identifying where they are awesome, where they are not, and how to improve.

I saw a job posting on Idealist for a director of grants and evaluation. The job description largely entailed focusing on grant opportunities, with the “evaluation” portion solely dedicated to proving program impact. This is absolutely the wrong way to think about evaluation.

I do believe it makes sense for organizations to dedicate some of their grants budget to evaluation, but not to prove program impact. Instead, any organization that can demonstrate an ability to identify program success and failure, and the capacity to learn from those results, will stand out to evidence starved funders.