Understanding the elements of a strong evaluation will be instrumental in the progress of your organization and its programs. A mutual appreciation for the standards and purpose for evaluation tasks can certainly strengthen the conversations you have with your evaluators as you go through the process. If your organization is mostly unfamiliar with evaluation, this article will supply a foundational understanding of what evaluation is, why it is necessary, and some guidelines for high quality evaluation. Program evaluation will be the main focus.
Evaluation could be a combination of assessing whether program activities are being carried out as planned (i.e., process evaluation) and assessing how well a program is meeting its goals (i.e., outcome evaluation). It may also be just one of the aforementioned types of evaluation depending on the desired focus.
Here is the general structure of an evaluation:
Steps in Program Evaluation according to the CDC Framework for Program Evaluation in Public Health1 (read this document for a comprehensive description of program evaluation)
- Engage stakeholders
- Describe the program
- Focus the evaluation design
- Gather credible evidence
- Justify conclusions
- Ensure use and share lessons learned
Taking an in-depth look at a program in relation to its goals forces you to justify every activity. The benefits of this process are manifold. By doing this diligently, resources will be spared rather than wasted on efforts that are not producing desirable results, or even no results to speak of. As for the positive results, these can go far in obtaining future funding.
This is essentially how an evaluation achieves this.2
- It identifies a programs strengths and weaknesses
- Offers guidance for improvements
- Demonstrate program success through positive results
- Identifies effective strategies or valuable lessons that can be used by other organizations for future program planning
If your evaluation accomplishes these things, you have made a smart investment, especially if your organization is responsive to its evaluation results and recommendations.
The following guidelines are not exhaustive but are derived from respected guiding principles for effective evaluation.
There are steps that can and should be taken to put your organization in a good position for evaluation. If you are in your program planning phase, making sure that the objectives of your program are well-defined is vital. The clearer your program goals are, the easier they will be to evaluate. It is essential to know what you are seeking to accomplish, and how you plan to reach your goals.3 Furthermore, it is not enough to have goals or a vision—these must be measurable; otherwise, there are no concrete ways to determine success or failure.
Planning does not end here. Evaluation requires a plan as well, one which stakeholders, or those who have vested interests in the program being evaluated, must be included. More specifically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines stakeholders as those who are involved in operating a program, are affected or served by the program, or will be primarily using the results of evaluation—those who have power to make decisions about the program.4 These are individuals or organizations.
Evaluation results must be meaningful to you–the stakeholder. Such people have a range of valuable insight that is needed for a comprehensive view of a program by an external evaluator. A hallmark of sound evaluation is active involvement of stakeholders in its planning phase and the phases that follow. This can mean working with evaluators that actively solicit stakeholder perspectives to guide the entire process outlined above, and who are communicative with them about the evaluation’s progress throughout the process.
Stakeholder engagement may seem straightforward, but often evaluations occur without fully taking stakeholder perspectives into account. To avoid a misguided evaluation, be sure that your view of the program and evaluation goals as well as the population served by the program are thoroughly understood and taken into account as you work with your evaluator.
Ongoing Evaluation Practices
Evaluation is not a one-time event; it should be ongoing. Over time, new challenges will arise such as changes to funding or shifts in demographics of those being served and a program must adapt. Considering this, it is important to evaluate regularly to maintain and promote progress. Because this will be a relatively regular occurrence, it is all the more important to ensure that it is carried out with excellence.
Think of a program as a plant and evaluation as pruning. Taking the time to examine it and cut away what is unnecessary with the right tools and gardeners (skilled assessment) does wonders for fruitfulness and growth.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Framework for program evaluation in public health.” MMWR 1999;48(No. RR-11):[inclusive page numbers]. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/rr/rr4811.pdf
- Kiritz, Norton J. Grantsmanship: Program Planning & Proposal Writing. (Los Angeles: The Grantsmanship Center), 114-116.
- Kiritz. Grantsmanship. 114-116.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Framework for program evaluation”