Tag Archives: evaluation

Evaluating Complex Initiatives

Srik Gopal, who co-leads social sector consulting company FSG’s Strategic Learning and Evaluation practice, recently blogged at SSIR about evaluating complex social initiatives. He discusses two funders of large-scale, complex initiatives and their attempts to change the way they evaluate success, because as he says:

They are building on the recognition that a traditional approach to evaluation—assessing specific effects of a defined program according to a set of pre-determined outcomes, often in a way that connects those outcomes back to the initiative—is increasingly falling short.

He continues, stating that because complex systems are always changing, the evaluation tools used need to be “adaptive, flexible and iterative.” I’m a big fan of the idea that we need to get beyond simplistic “cause and effect” models of evaluation, which often ignore context. This is particularly true when dealing with complex initiatives and initiatives launched in unstable/changing or multiple environments – it’s important to go beyond whether something works in each location and get into why it does or doesn’t work.

The blog post gives a good feel for the flavor of the work that FSG has done to try to recognize this complexity and deploy tools that can capture the information needed to  create evaluations that can adapt to changing circumstances and capture not just outcomes but relationships and system dynamics, including a chart that shows 3 of their 9 propositions for evaluating complexity alongside what those propositions mean in the real world and some existing tools that can be used in order to capture the needed info.

However, this blog post doesn’t go beyond giving some flavor. It’s worth clicking the link they offer and going through the free signup process to see the full 30+ page report they offer. This includes all 9 propositions, both in snapshot form (page 5) and with full descriptions and case studies. There is also a chart similar to the one in the blog post on pp 31-32 that shows each proposition alongside a brief description of the proposition and some helpful evaluation tools/methods. Beyond the charts and descriptions, there are also 3 case studies.

This looks to be a great resource for those looking to design a thoughtful evaluation process for complex initiatives, as well as a way to re-think what organizations may be hoping to learn and capture for even more simple evaluation practices.

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Evidence +/vs Innovation

Paul Carttar has an interesting post up over at the Bridgespan Group’s blog entitled Evidence and Innovation – Friend or Foe?

Carttar frames the discussion with an anecdote:

…during a recent discussion about what makes a nonprofit organization “high-performance.” One participant nominated innovation as a critical factor. To my astonishment, this stirred an impassioned dissent from another participant, a recognized and vocal proponent of evidence and accountability, who argued that in the nonprofit world the word “innovation” typically implies the generation of exciting new ideas, apparently free of any bothersome, killjoy demands for validation of merit.

Carttar talks about how this is nothing new – that during his time running the white house Social Innovation Fund, he often heard complaints that evaluation stifles innovation. And I’ve certainly seen numerous innovative approaches shut down or left un(der)funded because they’re not “evidence based” – but Carttar makes two important distinctions: 1) Innovation is less about “something new” and more about “something better,” and 2) ” hard evidence of relative performance is the most legitimate, productive way to determine what actually is better.”

Carttar then goes on to discuss the varying types of “hard evidence,” clearly stating that not all types are appropriate for all efforts. He makes the crucial distinction between startup and mid-stage enterprises, and what type of evaluation and “evidence” makes sense for each.

At its best, evidence serves as innovation’s good friend by stimulating continued improvement and providing potential beneficiaries, funders and other stakeholders an objective basis for determining whom to turn to and to support. In this way, evidence can not only “cull the herd” but actually propel the growth and scaling of the best innovations, enabling them over time to become the prevailing practice. In fact, that’s the hopeful theory underlying the SIF.

To be sure, there are plenty of opportunities for conflict between evidence and innovation, which must be diligently managed. Potential funders may demand unrealistically rigorous standards of evidence to assess relatively immature, still-evolving programs—potentially stifling the development of promising solutions. Ill-timed, poorly executed, or inaccurately interpreted evaluation studies can also prematurely choke off development. Or backers of a program with a robust empirical basis may hesitate to invest in further improvements (that is, continued innovation) for fear of undermining the program’s evidentiary support and perceived competitive advantage.

The discussion continues in the comments, and is worth reading for its thoughtfulness and appreciation of nuance.

The evolution of strategic thinking in noprofits

Jed Emerson’s twitter feed (@blendedvalue) pointed me to this SSIR article by Barbara Kibbe entitled Five Things Strategy Isn’t, which Emerson describes in the comments as “just a really nice framing of how we got here and where we’re headed.”

The first half of the article is just that – a great summary of how “the dynamic duo of strategy and evaluation” has evolved from flip charts that simply record discussions, to logic models, to SROI and beyond. I’m oversimplifying what Kibbe herself calls an oversimplification, but that’s because it’s worth checking the article itself if you’re not familiar with the evolution of evaluation processes, tools and thinking from the 80s to now. My own nonprofit journey didn’t start until the 90s, but being in small local nonprofits, we certainly used 80s tools/thinking in the 90s (and sometimes still today).

The second half of the article opens by saying that the current debate over the value of strategic philanthropy is healthy, but in order to have that debate we should be careful in defining our terms. And Kibbe starts that definitional discussion by pointing out five times when what we call strategic thinking isn’t actually strategic:

  • when it’s fixed – good strategy is never fixed, nor is it a single tool (or a pair of tools). Kibbe quotes Rosabeth Moss Kantor of HBS: “Strategy is a lot like improvisation—setting themes, destinations, directions, and then improvising around those themes.”
  • when it’s insulated – context is key, and if strategy and evaluation are not considered together then both will suffer
  • when it doesn’t consider people – strategy needs to be flexible enough to deal with the complexities of human beings
  • when it’s old, hidden or boring – strategy needs to be current, compelling and shared in order for others to understand it and buy in
  • when we are too attached to it – here Kibbe quotes The Independent Sector’s founder John Gardner saying “Philanthropy is the only source of truly flexible capital for the social good” and following up with how important it is for foundations to listen to and support good ideas from the field.

Kibbe closes with her hopes for the future, including this quote that I really liked:

When we look strategy (and evaluation) in the eye, we will see a useful and evolving suite of tools—no more, no less. Practiced well, and in tandem, they will continue to be powerful aids for decision-making but never substitutes for judgment.

 

Performance Measurement vs Impact Evaluation

Bridgespan’s e-newsletter pointed me to an article in the Nonprofit Times on performance measurement. It starts by saying that we often treat performance measurement like a math test, looking to see if we got the right or wrong answer, when we should be treating it like an essay, with multiple drafts each working toward improvement. As the authors say,

the primary question is not “‘are we doing it right?”, but rather “is this useful?”

The article goes on to discuss the difference between performance measurement (a managerial tool for continuous improvement) and impact evaluation (an effectiveness tool most often used by external funders):

Evaluation grows out of social science, an academic discipline with peer-reviewed methodologies. Specifically, impact evaluation often seeks to attribute causation (e.g., ‘did this specific program cause that outcome?’), and often is intended for an audience beyond the nonprofit program being evaluated (policy-makers, funders, academics, practitioners more broadly).  Impact evaluations tend to make more sense for well-established program models, not experiments and start-ups.

 

Performance Measurement, in contrast, is a management discipline, closely related to continuous improvement and organizational learning. It seeks rapid, incremental improvements in programs and their execution, and thereby outcomes for participants.

The article goes on to list some examples of the types of performance measurement, and some concrete steps for moving forward (including logic models development and a pilot evaluation process). The tools themselves were familiar to me, but the framing was not and I found it powerful. I particularly liked the closing sentence, “performance measurement implies a burden of action—not a burden of proof—to learn and improve.”

The article mentioned a couple of additional resources that look at performance measurement and impact evaluation:  “Measurement as Learning,” by Jeri Eckhart-Queenan and Matt Forti and Working Hard & Working Well by David Hunter. The latter is listed as a companion to Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason, which has been sitting on my office bookshelf unread for too long.