Understand the Types of Evaluation for Effective Program Assessment

Many nonprofit leaders approach program evaluation with apprehension. They assume it is a hard-to-learn, complex science that requires a lot of time and resources. They delay evaluation or implement shortcuts to ease the pain of what they believe is a painful process.

I’m here to assure you that program evaluation is not as scary as it may sound. In this blog article I explain what evaluation is, how it can benefit your organization, and the three types of program evaluation you may encounter.

Program evaluation simplified

Program evaluation is an in-depth look at a program based on focused evaluation questions. It answers these questions by collecting data using specific methodologies. It provides the tools for your organization to:

  • Manage the program
  • Identify performance gaps
  • Develop implementation plans
  • Show outcomes
  • Create stakeholder feedback reports.

Evaluation is a best practice of high-performing organizations. It is part of a broader strategic management process, serving as a tool to help assess the relationship between an organization’s business functions. It identifies how well your organization is working as one system, including the areas that are most efficient and opportunities for improvement.

A pile of question marks. One question mark is highlighted in orange and another question mark is highlighted in blue.

Leading with questions

For program evaluation to be effective, it is critical that you ask the right evaluation questions. Check out the Google case study in my recent webinar to learn how the leading tech company runs the organization with questions, not answers.

The questions you ask in an evaluation are essential to determining every other component, so defining these questions is the first step of program evaluation. Use evaluation questions to choose which of the following types of evaluation best fits your objectives. Like Google, this process is about focusing on opportunities for improvement rather than solutions.

The types of evaluation

Choose formative evaluation to increase the likelihood your program will achieve its goals. This type benefits organizations that are entering a new phase of program planning, starting a program, or applying a program at a different location or with a new population.

Formative evaluation may answer questions such as:

  • Is the program adjusting the needs of the population?
  • What is the program’s status regarding reaching its goals?
  • Are resources and program components allocated appropriately to ensure goals are met?

Formative evaluation is the type used most often in situations of change. If your organization is launching a new program and must determine the intended population’s needs and how the program will meet those needs, this type of evaluation is for you.

Process-based evaluation focuses on implementation. It determines how a program operates and achieves its results. This type is beneficial when programs appear to contain major inefficiencies or must be visually illustrated to external stakeholders.

Process-based evaluation may answer questions such as:

  • How do we represent the program to stakeholders?
  • What is the lifecycle from beginning to end?
  • How much of the planned program is being implemented?

For example, your organization aims to provide detailed information about how one of your programs operates to attract greater awareness and participation. You ask the first evaluation question in the list above and conduct a process evaluation to determine the activities delivered, populations served, and resources used.

Learn to what extent your program is delivering the outcomes it is designed to achieve with outcome or impact-based evaluation. This type is beneficial when you need to justify the existence of the program to external stakeholders or want to track performance over time.

Outcome-based evaluation may answer questions such as:

  • What indicators measure to what extent the program is meeting intended outcomes?
  • How effectively is the program meeting those desired outcomes?

When regulatory agencies or funders seek evidence that your program is meeting the goals you promise to deliver, it’s time for an outcome-based evaluation. This may be the most-used type because many nonprofits are required to evaluate and report program outcomes regularly.

For more comprehensive information about program evaluation, check out my blog post, “Program Evaluation and Your Organization.” If you could use some expert support with program evaluation, contact organizational development consulting firm Brighter Strategies today.