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Assessing Charities: Getting Started with Evaluation

By April 13, 2018October 13th, 2021No Comments

I recently presented on a panel at this year’s Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) Nonprofit Law Conference. The topic: “Assessing Charities: How Should Charities Be Evaluated, and by Whom?” As this is a common question that all of us at TPI get asked – professionally and across dinner party tables – I thought a quick summary of TPI’s approach based on our years of helping clients to reach ambitious philanthropic goals might offer something for funders, professional advisors, and charities to consider.

Three Tenets

Before digging into guidelines on pre-grant assessment as well as the invaluable post-grant monitoring and evaluation, here are three tenets critical to a thoughtful and productive approach:

  1. Keep evaluations practical and relevant. What do you need to or want to know, based on how you will use the information? What are your primary purposes for evaluating nonprofit organizations?
  2. Share and learn from successes and failures. Social change is not the result of one funder or one organization’s work. A networked community of experiences lies behind long-term impact. And a failure, if a program is properly pre-assessed, is a critical data point for donors and charities alike. If Approach A was a miss, how should that inform Approach B?
  3. Time for assessment and planning is time well-spent. For funders of all types, invest at least some time and effort in due diligence, analysis, and reflection to consider how best to target limited resources for greater impact.

Pre-Grant Evaluation

Before writing a check, every donor needs to be confident of a few things. Does the nonprofit have a track record of success in making progress towards its mission? Is the executive team and staff experienced and capable? Is the charity generally on stable financial and operational ground? Is there a strong fit between the funder’s goals and the organization’s mission and needs? For those who want to support innovative approaches, the questions may be a bit different, focusing more on risk analysis. The key is to think through what questions are important to explore before considering a potential grant.

Post-Grant Monitoring and Evaluation

While there are steps within steps in effective monitoring and evaluation of progress and results, we encourage funders and charities to adhere to a few basic expectations:

  • Progress and/or summary reports: Based on the initial agreement, did the grantee do what was proposed, executing against a plan and tracking agreed-upon data? Is the nonprofit making progress towards its stated goals? What challenges have arisen, and how is the organization addressing these challenges?
  • The “So what?” question: What actually resulted from the work? Are there anecdotal changes or, better yet, are there evaluation results that point to significant impact? Are there hard numbers that tell a story, either of success or of increased understanding? How do inputs relate to outcomes? For example, if a community health program charts an increase in traffic but does not see a reduction in a given condition across the population, is it because of limited efficacy of the intervention, lack of follow-through by patients, or other reasons? If a proven model is replicated elsewhere, are implementation efforts faithful to the original model? These are just a few of the many complex evaluation questions for funders to consider.
  • Feedback loops: Transparency and good communication between donor and charity can be critical in opening the door to candid assessment. Through your own transparency as a funder in seeking answers, you can demonstrate that monitoring and assessment are guiding both you and the grantees you support toward long-term goals and shorter-term outcomes. Interaction and involvement are valuable, and so is an active, demonstrated respect for the time, experience, and knowledge of the nonprofits you choose to support.

In the end, assessment, monitoring, and evaluation should lead both donors and nonprofits to a greater capacity to tackle the issues at hand. Strategies will likely be refined. Tactics will be tested and either improved or revised. Challenges faced by grantees will offer important learning experiences for all parties. Successes, failures, and uncertainties should all fuel the next round of philanthropic investments as well as on-the-ground action toward powerful change.

It was an honor to join my co-presenters, Dr. Cathy Burack from the Heller School at Brandeis and Michael Thatcher from Charity Navigator, and of course, MCLE and its audience for this panel. I invite anyone who wishes to explore this topic further to send me questions and I would be happy to develop additional posts or direct you to others with useful expertise and insights. And if you want to learn more, check out TPI’s primer on evaluating your philanthropy.