Evaluation Planning and Grant Applications

There are tons of great podcasts out there focusing on the non-profit world and evaluations, enough that I can do a full post on that topic sometime. Perusing the back episodes of the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Making Change” podcast, I came across a great interview with evaluation mastermind Michael Quinn Patton. He spoke at length about developmental evaluation and the growing movement for accountability, but one story he shared near the beginning (around the 6:30 mark) caught my attention. Patton related a common experience where a non-profit calls him up to say that they need an evaluation and were recommended to him. He asked what kind of evaluation they need, and after a confused silence they replied “A kind?”. He went on to tell the befuddled caller that just like there are different kinds of restaurants and computers and cars, there are different kinds of evaluation. In response the non-profit representative explained that their three-year foundation grant is coming to an end and they just noticed that they are supposed to do an evaluation as part of their agreement with the funder, at which point Patton responded, “I don’t do that kind of evaluation”.

Funders are increasingly asking applying organizations to evaluate their programs and projects: for example, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, a major funder in that province, has a dedicated page on creating an evaluation plan. Thankfully, OTF points out that evaluation planning should be incorporated in the program design process and take place before the project starts: as Patton’s story implies, leaving the evaluation to the last minute is not an ideal situation for either the evaluator or the organization.

With the approach of fall signalling the beginning of a new grant application season, now’s a great time to think about how evaluation fits in to the process. Every funding body and applying organization brings unique considerations, but there are three general principles to consider when you reach the “Evaluation” component of a grant.

1. Be clear as to what funder is looking for

This point is crucial, not just for the evaluation piece but the grant as a whole. If you don’t meet the requirements or understand what they’re asking for, all that time planning and writing will go for naught. Fortunately, almost all funding calls will list a contact person who can answer your questions and oftentimes provide some informal feedback on your application (or at the very least let you know if your idea is completely out in left field). Seek clarification on any points of uncertainty – ignorance is not bliss!

2. Know what you’re getting into

From the safety of the planning process, it can be easy to create an elaborate plan – sure, we can survey all of our participants four times during the program and run six focus groups! Although you should ensure that you are meeting the minimum requirements of the grant (following point 1 and clarifying with the funder directly if necessary), it’s better to underpromise and overdeliver instead of vice versa. Make sure you have the capacity to follow through on what you’re promising in terms of staff time and skills to plan the evaluation and collect and analyze data, as well as having access to the necessary tools such as online survey platforms or statistical software. Check whether you can use a portion of the grant funding to pay for tools and additional staff time or to hire an external consultant to conduct the evaluation.

3. Make sure the evaluation meets your needs too!

It’s all too easy to see the evaluation component as yet another hoop to jump through to get access to a pool of funds, but there are many benefits to your organization. What do you want to learn about your program, your participants, and your community? If the funder simply checks that you completed the evaluation and dumps it in a file-drawer with no impact on future funding, was the process still useful for you? An evaluation can contribute to the ongoing planning and development of your program, as well as demonstrate effectiveness and impact to your staff, participants, community partners, and future potential funders. In fact, ideally the evaluation planning should happen independently of any grant: when you get to that part of the application, it should just be the case of tweaking the pre-existing plan to meet any requirements of the specific grant.

Any other advice that I’m missing here? Share in the comments below or on Twitter!

If you represent a non-profit organization in the Saskatoon area that’s looking for help with evaluation planning, drop me a line – the initial conversation is (and will always be) free of charge!