Laura Beals, who is director of evaluation at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Boston, published a great article on the NTEN blog earlier this month, called “Are You an ‘Accidental Evaluator?’ “
I think that this is a great question to ask, because many nonprofit professionals currently managing program evaluation within small nonprofits are indeed coming to the task with less preparation than they would like. Perhaps they are program directors, or grant writers, or chief financial officers, or database administrators. And now the pressure is on them to come up with numbers that show that their organizations are actually creating the positive change in the world that the organization has promised to deliver.
In fact, many of today’s accidental evaluators at nonprofits are in the same position that accidental techies were ten or fifteen years ago.
I respectfully disagree with those of my esteemed colleagues who want to help nonprofit professionals by reassuring them that they don’t have to meet the standards of academic peer reviewed journals when they use data to tell their stories. While it’s true that the level of rigor required for nonprofit programmatic evaluation is much less strict, it’s not enough to point this out and encourage nonprofit professionals to relax. Those nonprofit professionals are running organizations with a special legal status that make them answerable to the public and responsible for contributing to the common good. This is a serious ethical obligation.
From my point of view, those of us who understand the importance of evaluation in the nonprofit sector should be working to deliver appropriate forms of professional development to “accidental evaluators,” just as NTEN has labored mightily to deliver professional development to “accidental techies.”
In fact, NTEN itself is in a very good position to assist “accidental evaluators,” because many technology topics are intimately tied up with nonprofit evaluation, such as database development, data integration, and data visualization. Indeed, if you look at some the companion articles on the NTEN blog, you’ll see that this effort is underway:
- How Small Organizations Can Use Affordable ICT-tools to Measure Impact
- On Transparency, Data, and Trust
- Measuring What Matters: Outcome-based Evaluation in Arts and Social Justice Projects
I’m pleased to say that here in Boston we’re actively addressing this. For example, Laura and her wonderful JF&CS colleague Noah Schectman recently led a meeting of local nonprofit professionals who are seeking to improve their skills in bridging between evaluation and technology. A pivotal moment at this session came when the executive director of a tiny nonprofit raised her hand and asked Noah, “Will you be my best friend?” Noah’s face lit up, and he told her that he would. That’s the kind of reassurance that we should be offering nonprofit professionals who feel overwhelmed; we should be telling them that support and training are on the way.