As winter turns to spring, the charitable sector in Ontario is grappling with a new provincial budget that puts funding pressure on a range of public services and deepens the social deficit—the gap between what people need, and what charities and government services can provide.
Many charities are already searching the landscape for new funding options, worried they will otherwise have to withdraw services. Into this unhappy predicament I would like to make a case for impact evaluation as an investment that can yield big returns for charities, rather than a cost that should be trimmed in the process of belt-tightening.
Imagine Canada has just released their report “The State of Evaluation in Canada: Measurement and Evaluation Practices in Canada’s Charitable Sector.”
It makes clear that nearly 80% of charities don’t have an evaluation lead—it’s a role that’s spread across many people and it’s not a top priority for anyone. The result? The work suffers. In the past year, only 22% of charities “worked with a consultant in some capacity related to evaluation” even though “overwhelmingly, charities that work with external evaluators are happy about their experiences with them.”
This indicates underinvestment in evaluation, given the valuable role that strong evidence of impact can play in fundraising and revenue generation, organizational governance, and communications and marketing functions.
Even though 96% of charities are evaluating their work, nearly half (47%) are not using their evaluation results to communicate with the public/media, or report to the people they serve.
Charities aren’t investing in evaluation even though the benefits are demonstrable.
The report goes on to state that “regular communications between funders and fundees appear to be key to making the best use of evaluation results.” I am inclined to agree, but I also recognize that evaluators are not necessarily equipped to advise charities on how to talk about what they’ve learned. Evaluation results are not necessarily stories that tell themselves—that’s why they often end up on a shelf, rather than at the centre of a lively, inspiring conversation about new programs and new income streams.
Telling The Story Behind the Data
More than ever, foundation and corporate funders are asking for robust evaluation data that speaks to systems change goals before they will make large funding commitments. Thoughtful communications work pays significant dividends for charities committed to sharing evaluation data in the context of their overall mission, vision, values, and brand. Charities often overestimate what their funders, donors and volunteers actually know about them, and the nuance of evaluation results can get lost in this storytelling gap. This can be the difference between a compelling pitch, backed by evidence, and presenting a wall of numbers to a room of glazed faces.
Evaluation results are not stories that tell themselves
Applying some strategic communication thinking to your impact evaluation work significantly boosts your “evaluation ROI”—that is, it will help you get the most from the time you’ve invested in collecting and analyzing information, by developing your capacity to put it to good use inside your organization (aligning and motivating staff and volunteers) and outside your organization (making a better pitch for funds).
This is especially important for charities that are considering a new foray into social enterprise, or expanding existing social enterprises, as a way to earn more income and offset the potential loss of precarious funding sources.
I conducted research into a portfolio of over $500,000 in grants to over 30 social enterprises through Vancity Community Foundation; six qualities stood out as characteristics of the most successful grantees:
- They made a distinct transition from a nonprofit to a business
- They offered an appealing product or service
- They had strong management skills and experience
- They had strong support networks
- They had strong evaluation and performance monitoring systems
- They decisively made changes when necessary
The last two points—on evaluation and decision-making—cannot be performed effectively if your impact evaluation approach is disconnected from your day-to-day management practice. Evaluation data doesn’t do this “on its own.” Charities need to invest in communicating their impact data where and when it’s needed in order to realize its full value.
Junxion has worked with a wide variety of social enterprises, nonprofits, charities, funders and purposeful businesses to help them better integrate their strategy, brand, communication, impact measurement and reporting—so they can achieve their goals and show the value of what they do. We’re always interested to hear about new opportunities where our experience might be of service.
Garth Yule is a Managing Director at Junxion. He works with clients in the public, private, and social sectors, helping them to discern ‘the differences that make a difference.’ Reach him via email@example.com.