Evaluating to learn: workshop materials

10 Jan

Here is information from a new nonprofit evaluation workshop I’ve delivered in different forms recently for the Oregon Summit on Entrepreneurship, the Oregon Civic Engagement Conference, and earlier today, for Emerald Valley Development Professionals.  The “Evaluating to Learn” workshop features a particular kind of evaluation called “performance improvement”, which focuses on evaluating your work in real time for the purposes of learning how to do it better so that you can achieve your goals.

It’s motivating to work for an organization that systematically evaluates progress toward its outcomes with learning in mind. When you see clear evidence that something is working, you know you’re being effective. When you see evidence that it’s not, you can shift course in time to make a difference.

Learning also makes good business sense. According to a recent study of 231 private sector firms by the McKinsey consulting group, an organization’s financial health is most closely correlated to its having an effective performance management system. More than innovation, organizational capacity, or operating environment, the ability to learn and shift gears drives sustainable organizations.

Finally, the capacity to learn, adapt quickly and demonstrate effectiveness is increasingly important for nonprofits as we’re in the midst of a profound change in the public sector funding environment. A smaller government philosophy has garnered broad political support, which in turn creates more competition for both public and philanthropic investment. The same information you gather for learning also builds a strong case for future funding.

It can, however, feel overwhelming to launch systematic, meaningful evaluation in your organization. But it’s doable, and you don’t have to be an expert to get started. The key is, to quote late tennis legend and activist Arthur Ashe, to “start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can” to build a performance improvement system that enables you to evaluate and learn quickly. The first steps are to ensure that your desired outcomes are clear, and that you gather the right data to track your progress over time. Today’s workshop really focused on these first steps. Here’s what I shared:

One of the slides above includes a quote from physicist Enrico Fermi that I hope buoys your sense of inquisitiveness and excitement about evaluating to learn. “There are two possible outcomes: If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to your hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.” Why not get started?


Related post from October 2011 here