Nonprofits in the US traditionally operate from a paternalistic view, telling folks what it is that they need or should care about, including evaluating the impact of our work with top-down, prescriptive notions of success. As nonprofits, reliant on charity, we are usually driven by the dollars of wealthy individuals or corporations who adopt our organization’s cause as a pet project whose work they can claim as a moralistic reflection of themselves. This often leads to our organizational choices (including our evaluation efforts) being dictated by what the funders see as important, rather than the beneficiaries’ needs or desires. But what if we choose to stop viewing the recipients of nonprofit services and goods as beneficiaries and instead lift them up and respect them as they are — the true experts of our work? Because those who live the very experiences that we as the nonprofit sector aim to influence are at the heart of true impact and change — not the byproduct.
The basis of the word evaluation is value, and as those individuals who aim to increase goodness and love in the world (and who hold power as organizations), we must examine how we determine what is valuable — when we are assessing our work, are we using a top-down, status-quo metric of success based on stereotypes and assumptions, relayed to us by those who control the money and resources? Or are we humbling ourselves to design a shared, co-created definition of what truly matters with those who are living the experiences and environments that our organizations aim to positively affect?
Data collection and analysis should be a shared, empowering process of cultivating curiosity, sharing stories, and learning together. Some tips for more equitable, participatory impact evaluation that I use in my work:
- Co-create the measures of success: ask participants/recipients of the program/service: What matters to you? What does success look/feel like at the end of this program/service for you individually and our community as a whole? These should be living, breathing metrics so make sure to update them regularly together!
- Include pathways to measure outputs (numbers reached), outcomes (impact/change resulted) AND feedback/satisfaction in your evaluations. How a participant/recipient felt about your work (and about themselves as they interacted with your work!) is just as important as what took place.
- Diversify the methods of your evaluation process: worshipping the written word is a characteristic of white supremacy culture so think about how you can create multiple modes of evaluation (for example: consider offering both a survey and a conversational interview)
- Value the process as much as your end results: along with your output and outcome goals, create internal process goals that can keep your team on track with operating within your values: for example, think about what we would set as observational checkpoints to make sure that we are upholding our organization’s value of inclusivity
- Examine your results together: use your data as a conversation point with the community to increase transparency and influence your organization’s future choices! This usually happens at board, staff and funder levels, but it’s a powerful opportunity to have the true expert voices (the folks impacted by your work) drive your organization’s impact in the world
There are patterns in data, and those patterns help tell stories: stories that can shed light on the past, reflect values and beliefs, and help make better choices and plans for the future. The field of impact assessment and evaluation is inherently one of curiosity. Curiosity is, in my opinion, one of humanity’s very best traits. When we are curious about ourselves and each other, magic happens — empathy increases, fear dissipates, and as we learn about others’ experiences and stories, we increase our sense of responsibility to each others’ freedom and happiness. And the best way to learn about others is to learn with and from them. As the prison abolitionist organizer and liberation visionary Mariame Kaba says: “Nothing that we do that is worthwhile is done alone; everything worthwhile Is done with other people.” This is what drives my passion for equitable, participatory impact assessment and evaluation for organizations — the idea (and responsibility) of using an organization’s power to uplift the true experts of its programs and services — the people at the heart of our work! With their lived experiences, wisdom and strengths, we have so much to learn from them.
Evaluation begets fear. What will that person think of me? What if I do not do this? Oh no! We only have a week before the deadline. When we act out of fear, we forget the abundance that is around us at all times, and often act out of a sense of scarcity. Not only does this have the potential to negatively impact the genuine impact of the work being done, it negatively impacts the individuals that are doing the work. Physiologically speaking, fear disrupts, and sometimes disables, our central nervous systems.
What if we were to look at schools as non-profits, and students as the benefactors? If a teacher’s class gets high marks on a written exam they receive praise, and in some cases, more money. This harmfully incentivizes the teacher to place a greater emphasis on writing and reading, as most exams that students take in school, regardless of subject, are written exams.
So, if a young child, let’s say a 6-year old child, does not have an interest and or aptitude for writing and reading, but rather enjoys learning with their body and senses, they are still forced into writing and reading. They are forced into doing what they do not like. This puts teachers in a difficult situation too! They often have to force (or in school terms manage) kids to do what they do not want to do. If they do not conform, there is often punishment or public shaming. At the core of this is the TEST. In many cases, the TEST is the main assessment and evaluation tool in our formal spaces of learning.
This culture of assessment and evaluation is not limited to schools. Elizabeth mentioned non-profits as another example, and I would imagine that this same culture could be found in the majority of organizations and institutions across the globe.
What would an assessment and evaluation system that honors, and uplifts, the benefactors look like? What would a systems look like where everyone, the giver and the receiver, is seen as a benefactor?
Lead Author: Elizabeth White
Elizabeth is an expert in curiosity and works toward the pursuit of equity, shared liberation, inclusion, and justice. She is particularly interested in the ways that participatory, equitable evaluation methods of programs and impact can disrupt the status quo of white supremacy culture in organizations. She believes that equitable data collection, analysis and sharing are powerful tools for storytelling and cultivating shared humanity.
Elizabeth is a community organizer by education and training, and has been influenced as a humble learner for the past 10 years through her work in food justice and urban agriculture programs in Detroit, refugee and girls’ empowerment efforts in Thailand, and youth leadership development and global health equity work in Chicago.
She currently works as Impact Evaluation and Strategy Lead at GlobeMed. You can contact her at email@example.com.
Anchor Author: Daniel Rudolph
Daniel Rudolph is interested in exploring alternative, experiential learning opportunities for people of all ages. He is passionate about forming community, and building public spaces for meaningful, transformational gathering. Currently he is spending a lot of his time learning juggling and facilitating gatherings. He also enjoys writing and sharing poetry.
Dan, and a small team, are in the process of publishing a series of articles titled ‘Live Human Signposts’ that showcases individuals that have taken alternative paths to higher education and/or are pursuing regenerative livelihoods, which is being commissioned by the Ecoversities Alliance. In March, Dan will begin an apprenticeship in Vermont at the MAPLE Monastic Academy.