Increase Learning & Evaluation Skills for Nonprofits
A Funder’s Strategy Approach
There is a need to shift the paradigm of funder-nonprofit relationships in the social sector and how we support nonprofits to build meaningful evaluation practices. It’s a journey we must be willing to embark on to find better ways to build trust and improve learning.
Caring for Denver Foundation is one of those organizations that has stepped into this journey through their equity-centered approach to funding. Dedicated to addressing Denver’s mental health and substance misuse needs, Caring for Denver has funded over $112 million in the areas of alternatives to jail, care provision, community centered solutions, youth and special initiatives.
Discovering How to Make Evaluation More Meaningful
Caring for Denver collaborates with its grantee partners to identify metrics and measurement practices that are simultaneously responsive to community needs, align with each nonprofit’s values, and are relevant to its co-created, “Shared Impact Plan.”
ResultsLab is serving as an extension to Caring for Denver’s Evaluation and Learning team, providing thought partnership to their innovative approach, and supporting a group of the foundation’s nonprofit partners to engage in meaningful data practices.
The main goal for this Learning and Evaluation Partnership is to strengthen their nonprofit partners’ capacity and confidence in evaluation in a way that is most meaningful to their work.
An Approach to Collectively Grow and Learn
Building Capacity with Nonprofits
Over the course of a year, ResultsLab engaged with 45 nonprofit partners, providing 8 to 10 hours of 1:1 consulting support. Nonprofits chose from an array of support options, including:
- Learning and Evaluation Strategy
- Data Collection Practices
- Tool Development and Refinement
- Measurement Plans
- Data Systems and Structures
- Learning and Evaluation Snapshots
500+ hours of learning and evaluation support were provided to the nonprofit partners and and process tools were developed. The tools ranged from traditional to non-traditional methods of data collection, and each were designed to align with the values, fit within the context, and complement the organizational and programmatic approach for each organization. The time taken to actively listen and understand each organization was what enabled the nonprofits to build measurement practices that were more relevant and meaningful to their work.
Keeping Nonprofits at the Center
Throughout the duration of the project, we also consistently integrated opportunities for the nonprofit partners to share their thoughts and feedback on the experience, which we were able to capture through:
- Reflection Trackers
- Monthly ‘Problem of Practice’ Connects
- Nonprofit Exit Interviews
- Nonprofit Questionnaires
- Document Reviews
The feedback we received helped monitor our progress, and ensure we were on track to increasing learning and evaluation capacity, and in a way that was meaningful to the nonprofits.
“So helpful to have you help us think through this and to help us think outside of the box. So immensely helpful as there seems to be so much more richness in these data” – Nonprofit Participant
“This journey has felt so supportive- I have been able to learn and ask questions” – Nonprofit Participant
With this information, we were better equipped to make refinements and strengthen the support provided to nonprofit partners, and to help Caring for Denver learn from and improve their approach.
How Nonprofits’ Evaluation Practices Evolved
By the end of the project, we heard directly from participants how the experience shifted their perspective toward data and their excitement to continue their evaluation journey.
Some of the resulting outcomes across the different nonprofit partners included:
- Ability to connect the dots: Nonprofits could start to see how different pieces of their evaluation practices linked together, and how that connected to the work they do and their impact story.
“This partnership has been a game changer in helping us understand how the quantitative process of data and evaluation can work alongside our qualitative pieces in ways that just didn’t link up before.” – Nonprofit Participant
- Shift in mindset: Nonprofits expressed excitement for collecting data and engaging in evaluation practices as they started to see the value it had for their programs and organization.
“This used to be let’s get this done as quickly as possible. Now it’s let’s get some data that we want. This has been dramatically helpful for us.” – Nonprofit Participant
- Learning and using meaningful measurement tools: Nonprofits learned a variety of ways to collect data, and built tools that were aligned to their programs and communities. Not only did teams build the skills to develop and implement the measurement tools, but teams were more excited to engage in evaluation because it better fit their unique contexts and needs.
“I love this [exit interview], it feels natural and will help kids articulate what they are learning about taking care of themselves.” – Nonprofit Participant
- Ability to connect evaluation to program quality and improvement: The process helped nonprofits develop a framework for their programs and services, and the foundational work to connect what they do, with how they do it, and the outcomes. With this foundation, they learned how to identify quality indicators so they are able to collect the right data to better understand their work.
“This process of thinking about how to evaluate things… It COMPLETELY shifted our perspective on our work with our clients! It’s been more than just creating a tool. It has been already helpful and how we conceptualize our work. It has been valuable.” – Nonprofit Participant
Continuing to Create Meaningful Evaluation Support Across the Sector
Caring for Denver’s collaboration with their nonprofit partners exemplifies their commitment to an equity-centered approach. Through working with these nonprofits to support the development of their data practice, there are several key conditions to highlight that are necessary for success:
- Trusting relationships: Create a space for transparent conversations where nonprofits can be honest about the needs of their organizations, and where they are open to sharing areas of uncertainty. This is key for learning to occur.
- Right-sizing: Match measurement practices with organizational resources, capacity and needs. Work closely with direct service staff and take the time to deeply understand the context for each program. This is essential to develop evaluation practices that are sustainable.
- Go beyond the ‘traditional’: Share information about the less common, the culturally relevant, and the community-responsive evaluation practices. Also make time to support qualitative data analysis. These aspects are often unknown or overlooked in many organizations, but can provide valuable insights and spark deeper interest in data.
Under these conditions, foundations can start to form the relationships and environments needed for capacity-building efforts that provide more depth, relevance and impact to a nonprofit’s data practice.