Reflections from the Ontario Nonprofit Network Annual Conference
Our byline at TNC is “evidence, insight, action,” and this website includes a number of stories that show how evaluation can really equip organizations to act in new and powerful ways. However, evaluation does not always or automatically lead to action. It is nothing more than a set of strategies, and any set of strategies can be misunderstood or misused. Sometimes, in fact, evaluation can actually have the opposite of the intended effect. The process can lead to frustration, mistrust, and stagnation.
So, what makes the difference? Last week, I moderated a panel on this question at the annual conference of the Ontario Nonprofit Network. ONN is passionate about the fact that it is a network – a dynamic, flexible and densely interconnected group of people with shared interests who work together in a highly collaborative and non-hierarchical way. During our discussion about evaluation, networks came up more than you might expect Michelynn Laflèche of United Way Toronto spoke from the point of view of a non-governmental funder. She talked about how United Way is creating a culture of learning and reflection internally, so that it can work with grant recipients to create more useful, customized evaluation designs. Dan Wilson from the Ontario Trillium Foundation told us that one size can never fit all when it comes to evaluation. He talked about how Trillium is working to develop different kinds of evaluation expectations for different kinds of projects. The panel also included an academic perspective. Tessa Hebb, from the Carleton Centre for Community Intervention, reported on research that showed nonprofit groups make better use of evaluation findings when they are clear about the purpose of their projects. Theories of change get people talking about impact rather than outputs, and they help to identify the evaluation questions that really matter.
Maureen Fair from West Neighbourhood House in Toronto brought a practitioner’s perspective to the panel. As the leader of a front-line nonprofit organization, she talked about the challenges involved in doing meaningful evaluation work with limited resources. One of Maureen’s points was that nonprofits rarely have the capacity to translate evaluation findings into action while working alone. Only by networking – by pooling their data and their stories and their expertise can nonprofits get from evidence to insight and action. West Neighbourhood House has had some great success working on evaluation in partnership.
Maureen’s comments prompted one of my main take-away messages from the day. In order to make a difference, evaluators need networks and people who are skilled at building them. “Networkers” will ensure that evaluators ask questions that matter, and that evaluation reports get talked about. Evaluation findings need to be shared with partners, considered alongside information from other agencies, linked to academic research, and incorporated into inspiring messages for change. Networkers, similarly, need evaluators. The sharing of evaluation findings communicates transparency, a commitment to evidence based practice, and a willingness to learn. This sharing can open up great new connections and opportunities.
Evaluation will lead to action when the groups represented on our panel work more closely with one another. I know all of us were grateful to the ONN for starting the conversation. We ended the session talking about the idea of Ontario’s nonprofit networks developing a shared agenda for linking evaluation to action.