• Michelle Molina

What is Program Evaluation?

Program evaluation is a systematic process used to determine the value or worth of an activity.

Nonprofits use program evaluation to get feedback and develop a better understanding of how effective their programs are. It can become easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and ensure you’re continuously improving and making the biggest impact possible. Program evaluation can help your nonprofit:

Understand to what extent you’re reaching goals (e.g. outcomes)

Make improvements to programs

Clearly describe the impact your programs are having

Make informed decisions

Think strategically

In sum, program evaluation can help you improve and show you’re impact.

What do you mean by a systemic process?

The exact evaluation process will differ depending on who is leading the evaluation. However, you should structure your evaluation around the following 5 steps:

1. Considering Context​ You need to think about your context to ask the right questions and collect useful data. This includes the following clarifying the following:

Impact Statement A statement describing the population you’re serving, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

Program Description Describe your activities: who participates, what do they do, when do they do it, where do they do it, and why.

Context Description Describe why your setting is unique. Think of the history, cultural environment, and community that have influenced your program. Share what brought your program into existence in this setting and why it continues to be necessary.

Organizational Description

Outline how your organization is organized: how are lessons learned shared, and who has direct or indirect influence on your program.

Stakeholders Perspectives Identify your stakeholders and what their perspectives are.

Theory of Change Outline how your activities lead to changes. This involves defining your outcomes: the changes in knowledge, attitude, or behavior you hope to see. Then showing how these outcomes are connected to your activities and to each other.

Program Lifecycle Think about how consistent your program is and what outcomes are reasonable to expect. If your program is still going through a lot of changes you’re probably in an early lifecycle stage. Alternatively, if your program has been implemented consistently for several years, you’re probably in a later lifecycle stage.

Program Assumptions & Principles Principals are consistent ideas or practices you strive for in your programming. Alternatively, assumptions are thoughts or ideas you may take for granted about your program. You can think of them as blind spots.

Prior Experience with Evaluation Outline what evaluation tools you used in the past or are currently using. This will help you identify what you still need to know about your program and avoid potential pitfalls.

This reflection and prep before the evaluation will help make sure you’re asking the right questions. Plus, this information will not just be useful for the evaluation. You’ll also be able to share this with others so they understand your program. For example, you can share it with new staff, a grant writer, or share pieces with potential funders.

2. Evaluation Planning

You identify your evaluation’s purpose, narrow down evaluation questions, outline your data collection methods, and timeline.

Evaluation Purpose:

There are many reasons why a nonprofit would choose to conduct an evaluation. For example:

Learning about the program

Making an informed decision



Adapting the program

Having a clear purpose will help focus your evaluation ensuring you have meaningful data.

Evaluation Questions These are broad questions about your program. Think about which of your activities, processes, or outcomes you and your stakeholders are interested in learning more about.

Select Data Collection Methods Data collection methods should align with the evaluation questions and lifecycle.. There are five basic types of data methods: surveys, interviews, focus groups, observations, and documentation. Consider what is feasible and explore tools others have used.


You will need to identify a time and place to collect data. This will depend on the type of data you’re collecting and logistics related to your setting. Planning for potential logistical hurdles will help make sure data collection runs as smoothly as possible.

3. Data Collection & Analysis This is where you collect data to answer your evaluation questions. As mentioned above there are five basic types of data methods. Each has its pros and cons. As data comes in, review it to make sure that you catch any missteps along the way.

4. Sense-Making Share data with stakeholders to make sense of it together. Your group will be able to celebrate successes and identify areas of growth. This will ensure a shared understanding and participation in the development of next steps - fostering organizational learning.

5. Action (& Reporting)

Follow through and take some action based on your evaluation results. Identify key findings and lessons learned to share within and outside your organization. Develop an action plan to use the information you gathered to improve and grow your work.

What do you mean by value or worth of an activity?

The value or worth of an activity is really in the eye of the beholder. By collecting data, you’ll be better able to describe what’s happening. However, it’s important to know what success means to you and your stakeholders. Having these internal and external discussions before the evaluation results are in will help manage expectations and assist with the interpretation of results.

Ultimately, you’re doing this work to make a positive impact on the lives of your participants. You want to be able to show when you’re making an impact. Alternatively, you also want to know what can be improved on to maximize that impact.

Where do I start?

Start small. Program evaluation may seem daunting. However, at its core program evaluation is about asking for feedback and learning from the work you’re doing. Having some information to guide your decision-making and show your impact is better than having none.

Begin actively thinking about your context. As described above, getting your context down on paper will not only help you describe your work to others, but also help you select what your evaluation should focus on and how to collect data.

Pick one piece of your work to evaluate. Think about the changes you hope to see in your participants because of this piece. What is the quickest way to see if these changes are taking place? You may start with a simple survey. Or you may have an informal interview with participants.

Get a one-page summary of the evaluation process!


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