Think Small: On Evaluation for Everyone

By Jessica Payne and Jan Schwaid

This blog was originally posted on the Non-Profit Learning Lab's Lab Notes Blog. Thank you to our friend's at NPLL for permission to cross-post. 

If there’s one thing most of us hate, it’s feeling small.

The tale of David vs. Goliath aside, it seems like the little guys are always getting the short end of the stick. Bugs get squashed, the runt of the litter is subject to ridicule, and have you ever seen a short supermodel? Let’s not even get started on those “small plates” tapas restaurants – you always end up spending way too much on too little food, and you leave wanting to hit up a Taco Bell on the way home (or is that just me?).

But I digress. Being a small nonprofit in a sea of larger companies can feel overwhelming. How will you hold your own against the big guys, the organizations that are backed by huge government grants, nationwide fundraisers, or celebrity spokespeople? How do you grow your brand to make sure your voice is heard on behalf of the population you serve.

In two words: outcomes evaluation.

Maybe you feel that you’re too small for outside evaluation, or perhaps you’ve been collecting your own data. In a recent study, while 90% of the surveyed nonprofit organizations said they were collecting data, 31% (nearly a third!) didn’t know what to do with their data.1

No matter how small you are, outside evaluation is invaluable in growing your company. By opening yourself up to help, you demonstrate accountability, and that builds the community’s (and potential funders') trust in your organization.

Speaking of trust, the best way to gain it is through tangible evidence – something evaluation can supply. This unbiased evidence is critical because of the move toward evidence-based decision-making among donors. Most funders require it – from government agencies to individual donors, everyone needs proof that what you’re doing works, and not just in terms of correlation, but actual direct causation. Organizational transparency is not just a favor you’re doing for clients and funders – it’s a necessity. Don’t come up empty-handed when it’s time to tell the story of your hard work.

Though it’s difficult to condense the bigger picture and emotionally dense goals of a nonprofit into facts and figures, such facts give you concrete proof that your work is creating an impact on many lives as well as the surrounding community. That gives your funders (and the community you serve) much-needed confidence in your program’s ability to create real, lasting change. While personal anecdotes can be effective, a fact-based foundation is the key to getting your nonprofit’s story heard. We like to think of it as multiplying the triumphant anecdote by 100x (or however many clients you have). The weight of all those stories is what takes your work from an anecdote to an IMPACT.

Another upside to letting someone else evaluate is that it allows you to step back and take in an objective view of your program. Sometimes, when we give our hearts to a cause, it’s difficult to see the big picture among the daily crises. Allowing an outsider to infiltrate our world can feel scary, but a different perspective can shed light on better ways to reach your goals – ways you might have overlooked because you’re too close to the issue to see the bigger picture.

Evaluation also allows you to better understand patterns in a real way; charts and graphs can feel cold and impersonal, but they’re also impartial and easy to compare over time. Using this data, you can chart a course for your nonprofit in a much more strategic way.

To a small organization, this might seem like a massive and frightening undertaking. Don’t feel overwhelmed!  The next time you’re feeling small, remember that all good things start as little more than seeds of inspiration; that many large nonprofits were born of a couple of people with big dreams, idealism, and hearts of gold, scraping together whatever they could to make a change in their community. You’re never too small for a helping hand, never too new to assess = what you’ve done and where you’re going.

And if you’re going to a tapas restaurant, could I come too? I know it’s overpriced, but now I'm craving calamari.

1. Vitulli, M. (2016, March 18). 5 Things You Need to Know about Nonprofits Big Data. Retrieved May 13, 2016, from