It’s simple science – neuroscience actually. The part of the brain that assesses things different then the part that does things. Non-profits are busy doing and rarely are able to do what is needed to stop, refocus, and spend time letting their brains assess things. Or if they do it is in the moment things are being done, not through extensive data collection and naval gazing.
But more importantly, for many smaller non-profits the broader community doesn’t offers resources for evaluation in the form of expertise, learning, support or money. Every organization I’ve ever worked for actually loves evaluation – they just don’t necessarily call it that or they aren’t systematic about it.
I’ve heard it called ‘debrief’ or ‘reflections’ and seen it at ‘postmortem’ meetings. It’s the post-event phone calls from major donors and the suggestion box in the drop-in space. It’s there at every Board meeting when the ED comes with piles of staff reports in her hands and defensive stress in her heart. It’s in the shy ‘excuse me, but I wonder if we could talk about something’ from the preschool mom to her kid’s teacher, and in the weeping volunteer coordinator behind her closed office door after firing a bad volunteer. It’s in the teenager shouting ‘you suck’ when a youth worker demanding swear-free zones in the community centre gym. And it’s in every painful page of the funder’s convoluted outcome measurement table in the annual grant report.
Evaluation is a constant thing for non-profit workers and leaders. Constant. But when told by a funder they must evaluate a program it is heard by everyone as “hire an outside evaluator to come in and judge everyone, then tell the funder about all the problems”. At least that’s what many non-profits hear.
What is needed is someone who truly understands the mandate and goals of the organization to listen to the daily sounds, watch the daily rigour, talk to the busy staff, and think about it. And the best person to do this is the Executive Director. That’s all. Give the E.D. time to sit and think, the skills to keep track of her (or his) observations, and the resources to report out on it to the right audiences is and, behold! An evaluation system is born.
It is the place to start because the point about one part of the brain assessing and the other part doing? Its still part of the same brain. We expect, for a human to function, they will both assess situations and act. Organizations need to be able to do both as well and that is just a matter of time, space and resources – given a choice, the small non-profit is always going to choose to act before assessing simply because its all they can manage. For some it actually is a matter of life and death and for others it often feels like it.