So you've decided to evaluate your program! Perhaps this evaluation is something you have chosen to do; perhaps the decision that an evaluation must be done was made by your funding source. One thing is certain, you have questions and concerns about the evaluation process. One of your concerns may be how to make sure the evaluation truly captures the essence of your program. Perhaps you worry that the work of your program will not be adequately represented by the evaluation. If this is a concern please read on! Below we describe some ways to enhance the evaluation. If you need more information about the actual hiring of an evaluator, please see the tip sheet "Choosing an Evaluator and Developing a Scope of Services."
A few steps to ensuring that the evaluation truly captures what your program does:
From the initial communication with the potential internal or external evaluator begin thinking about your desire to have this evaluation capture what your program does. Be explicit about your needs, concerns, and expectations for the evaluation. During this "focusing" stage you will get a true sense of whether the external or internal evaluator will be able to deliver the evaluation to your satisfaction. For example, is he or she familiar with programs like yours or does he or she seem interested in learning about them? Do you feel comfortable communicating with the potential evaluator or are your styles distinctly different? Chances are that you will be spending considerable time working with this individual (or individuals) so these issues are important to consider.
Allow the internal or external evaluator access to as many people, documents, activities, and program sites as possible. The more informed the evaluator is about your program the more likely the evaluation will accurately capture the essence of your program.
Select an internal or external evaluator who will use many tools to collect data about your program. Use of multiple types of tools will allow for a markedly enhanced evaluation that will capture the heart of your program. A combination of some of the following tools will be helpful: Surveys, focus groups, document review, interviews, observations, video or audio taping (each of which may be with current and/or former participants, staff or volunteers) Please see the tip sheet "Ways to Collect Evaluation Data" for more information on these tools.
Use a meaningful combination of the tools mentioned above and others such as journal writing, pre and post-tests and other tools before and after hiring an evaluator. Save these "mini evaluations" for comparison later and to use for immediate program improvement. The results will allow for a more complete assessment of the program than relying solely on data collected during the formal evaluation.
Remember that all programs have areas in need of improvement. A quality evaluation will highlight both program strengths and areas where the program can improve. For example, the evaluation may show that your program is great at outreach to in-school youth but that you have had trouble reaching out-of-school youth. Don't be discouraged; instead, use the evaluation findings to further strengthen your program.
Using the tips listed above and elsewhere in this guide will help to ensure that all of the elements reported by the evaluation will be accurate. The evaluation will leave you not only with ideas for program change but an opportunity to give you, your program staff and volunteers reason to be proud of the hard work you do to implement your program and improve your community! Please see the tip sheet "How to Use Evaluation Findings in Your Program" for more ideas about using the findings.
by Jennifer Drost