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Building Evaluation Culture in Nonprofit Organizations


We caught up with Trina Willard – principal and founder of the Knowledge Advisory Group (KAG) about an often confusing, but incredibly important topic – how to build a culture of evaluation in a nonprofit in order to thrive.  Here’s what she’s seeing in the field and the advice she gave:

While assisting nonprofit organizations with data and measurement responsibilities, we are often asked about the struggles they experience trying to get their staff “on board” with program evaluation efforts. The conversation usually goes a bit like this:

Nonprofit:  “Program evaluation? Ugh.  Our staff doesn’t have time for all that data stuff.  On top of everything else they already have to do?  No, it’s just seems too hard. Besides that, who really uses that information anyway?”

KAG:  “Hmmm…perhaps we should dig into those perceptions a bit.  What steps are you taking to build an evaluation culture, side-by-side with your service culture?”

Nonprofit:  “Evaluation culture?  What’s that?”

And therein lies the challenge.  As program evaluation has become more important within the landscape of nonprofit program and resource development, its integration into the culture of nonprofit organizations often lags behind.

So what exactly do I mean by evaluation culture? In a nutshell, it is the foundation for systematic and successful evaluation efforts and entails three primary elements:

  1. How your staff thinks and feels about evaluation

What is the climate like in your nonprofit when staff discusses evaluation? Do they express anxiety or feel apprehensive about the evaluation process?  Or are they energized by the opportunity to demonstrate progress and continuous improvement?  An effective evaluation culture places an emphasis on the latter.

  1. Your board & leadership’s philosophy about evaluation

 What is your organization’s overarching philosophy on the role of evaluation in driving your program model?  What is its role in resource development? How are these messages communicated by leadership?  If leadership is engaged, this prepares the organization for active engagement, as an evaluation plan won’t implement itself.  Organizational leaders can help identify and set priorities for an internal evaluation champion who will drive the process, provide oversight and monitor implementation.

  1. How your organization integrates evaluation into key functions and processes

 Nonprofit best practices address program evaluation as an ongoing, systematic approach that is designed to continually develop programs, maximize effectiveness, and address community needs as they change.  As such, evaluation infrastructure and principles should weave throughout the organization, thereby becoming an integral part of strategic planning processes, human resource structures, programmatic data collection procedures, and ongoing organizational reviews.

Cultivation of an improvement-oriented evaluation culture is a critical factor in developing sound nonprofit practices. If you’re interested in learning more, evaluation culture is one of the topics we’ll discuss in our upcoming class Evaluate Your Nonprofit’s Success: Defining & Measuring Outcomes on January 20, 2017 with The Community Foundation serving Richmond and Central Virginia.



Trina Willard is the Principal Consultant at Knowledge Advisory Group. Before founding the Knowledge Advisory Group in 2010, she served for seven years as the Vice President of Transformation Systems Inc. (TSI), a small, award-winning management consulting firm. Her prior experience includes almost a decade as Chief of the Evaluation Unit of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, Criminal Justice Research Center.

She provides organizations with measurement, research and evaluation services that inform planning and future organizational development. Trina’s methods examine the implementation and effectiveness of initiatives, programs, policies, and procedures, thereby helping clients guide decisions with the power of meaningful information.

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