News & Views

A blog for those interested in what affects, motivates and drives the New York City Nonprofit Sector — written by CRE’s crackerjack consulting team. We hope you use this space to share your thoughts, ask questions and engage in conversations about our city, social justice and the nonprofit sector.

Is Evaluation an Infection?

by Louisa Hackett - Recently, a few community-based organizations, evaluators and funders gathered at the City University of New York Graduate Center to discuss, as one participant described it, the accountability regime eating us.

  In discussing how evaluation is affecting (or as some might say infecting) the nonprofit sector, speakers mentioned all the research studies that report the same obvious and well known findings: lack of childcare, healthcare, access to education, employment and transportation restrict vulnerable populations’ ability to move out of poverty.  And, even more distressing, is that funding for evaluation and research undercuts the money available for programs.  

A recent case in point is the New York City-sponsored Opportunity NYC Family rewards that paid poor people to encourage good behaviors (going to the dentist; attending school regularly) and self-sufficiency (holding down a full-time job; passing the high school Regents exam).  The program which paid out more than $14 million to over 2,500 families also cost $10.2 million to run and $9.6 million to evaluate according to the New York Times

Government and foundations interest in funding ‘evidence-based’ programs is founded on a belief that scientifically designed research methods reveal what works.  However, as the group explained, complex social problems require complex interventions and complexity can not always be easily studied like a science experiment. 

Accountability does matter.  Collecting data has the potential to improve programs.  The question becomes creating useful evaluations or feedback mechanisms to make sure programs are effective and bad programs can be improved.  As Katya Fels Smyth and Lisbeth B. Schorr point out in their paper “A Lot to Lose: A Call to Rethink What Constitutes ‘Evidence’ in Finding Social Interventions that Work,” by basing our judgments on many ways of knowing and many sources of evidence, we can avoid the false choice between relying on random assignment experiments versus relying on professions of good intentions, ideology, and a handful of anecdotes.”

How can a nonprofit respond and be equipped to explain their programs impact?  One way is for groups to take back the evaluation language and explain to funders this is how we define and measure success.  An initial step is to develop a theory of change that makes explicit the link between a program’s activities and the impact it wants to make.  Another step is to gather information, including stories that indicate progress is being made within the program’s identified domains of impact.  And finally, groups can say to those funders requesting evaluation data, “will you support our ability to gather and report evidence our program works over and above the funding for the program?” 

Find us on:  CRE on Twitter CRE on Facebook  

News and Views


Rona Taylor record keeping grantmakers nonprofit mergers generative capacity building publications executive Philanthropic Collaborative Stanford Social Innovation Review executive transition CRE News National Committee of Responsive Philanthropy Rashid Littlejohn postponed event MAC AIDS Fund Featured Items strategic alliances nonprofit management Needs Assessment Nonprofit Tools community bookkeeping Volunteers Maria Mottola Government Updates arts nonprofit ownership accountability Mohan Sikka Useful Links Governance as Leadership Randall Quan Jeff Ballow announcment New York Community Trust Pamela Dicent Nonprofit Sustainability Nonprofit Quarterly Board of Directors Advocacy board leadership Holly Delany Cole harvard business school media leadership United Way of NYC Neighborhood Based Capacity Building Initiative Mark Light Hurricane Sandy Jean Lobell NYS Budget Data Huffington Post Sector Research 30th Anniversary Barbara Blumenthal President Obama civic engagement nonprofit leaders New York board and staff relations IT RFP fundraising CRE POV Client News government Funding Updates Barbara Turk Data Starved Coaching Valyrie Laedlein Michael Hickey Bill Ryan NYCCCOC evaluation House Party queens computers New York Foundation CRE Executive Search Fran Barrett Pavitra Menon hard times cre HR Without HR Nonprofit nonprofit start-ups Nonprofit News lower Manhattan collaborations Government News grantmakers for effective organizations handling the unexpected CRE Tips rockaways staff Ero Gray tips Interns I.T. without I.T. Albany proposal writing jobs nonprofit accountability What is Core? mergers Alliance for Nonprofit Management National and Community Service Development Survey case statement Peter Block Louisa Hackett Karen Erdos Harvard Kennedy School New York Times New York City Government Fran's Corner website, resources, announcements HIV/AIDS services providers Daring to Lead guest blogger internal controls Beth Kobliner foundations Ximena Rua-Merkin