By Robert Jakubowski, JVA Consulting
The JVA evaluation team has the opportunity to work with diverse clients across the nonprofit sector. Rivaling the diversity of our clients is the diversity of questions our evaluation team is asked to address. Of course, the myriad of questions we face in a given week keeps the work we do exciting. Although program evaluation is presented as that place where tough and ever-changing questions meet rigorous investigation, there are some things that remain constant across organizations – the ongoing search for funding.
In light of this realization, and the fact that more funders are calling for evaluation, JVA called together professionals from around the region to discuss trends they are seeing in funding in relation to evaluation practices. JVA was excited to host Noah Atencio, Vice President for Grant at the Daniels Fund; Laura Carlson, Program Associate at Temple Hoyne Buell; and Rosemary Rodriguez, State Director at Senator Michael Bennet’s Office. The following represent some themes that developed as our panelists discussed what they look for when providing funds and other funder trends they are seeing in the sector.
Outcomes, Outputs and Changing the World. Funders want to know that you have a good understanding of your fit in the social issue landscape in which you seek funding. Where do you stand among those doing similar work to you? How are you different? How are you adding to what others are doing? Funders are looking for narrative that explicitly focuses on how you are impactful in a way that uniquely chips-away at a specific social issue. Talk about the context of your social issues and why it is important that YOU are the one working on it. Communicate your current impact in a confident manner (no matter how small), and how your corner of the world is positively changed by what you do – address how your efforts and successes can be scaled-up with increased funds.
Of course, funders are also looking for evidence that you have an understanding of evaluation practice. Be sure to talk about outputs and outcomes of your programming, and the relationship between the two. Even if funding is limited, mention short-, medium-, and long-term program goals. If funding cannot realistically address long-term outcomes, address how steps in the short-term ultimately relate to longer, more global impacts. Conducting a quick literature review regarding what’s creating the need for your program can go a long way in demonstrating why your program is a solid choice for addressing short and long-term issues.
Understand funder climate and context. Other comments focused on the reality program officers and proposal selection committees face when projects are selected. While many funders use an objective point system for selecting whom to fund, funders often have to answer to a Board of Directors, or other entrusted leadership body. The more that you can provide funders with evidence your program provides a responsible and effective use of funds, the more your proposal will stick out. Funders also want to be confident that they are supporting something that fits current and future directions of their organization, and gives them something to stand behind when they answer to their funding source.
One direct way to communicate that you will provide evidence of impact is to have a strong working knowledge of success indicators within your program. That is, what sort of things will you measure and look for to demonstrate that your program is finding success? Will you have multiple indicators, and indicators that are sensitive enough to show smaller levels of success? What if certain indicators don’t bear fruit? Do you have other evidence to demonstrate funding is still having a positive impact? Providing funders with these assurances shows that you will deliver tangible information that they can confidently stand behind when the time comes to answer for their funding decisions.
Responsible use of funds. After getting your foot in the door with a particular funder, there are important issues to consider if you want to build potential for future funding with the same organization. Be upfront with the funder if your program is not producing the outcomes you expected. Related to having an understanding of funder context and climate, it is important to give funders advanced notice of lack-of-success-surprises. According to comments from our panelists, it’s better to proactively find solutions when things are working, then to bring issues to light at the final report. If issues are caught early, funders may be willing to consider a new plan or approach if it increases odds that your program will demonstrate success. Communicating that your approach is not working IS important information to hear. If there are systematic issues with your program that can be avoided during future efforts and funding cycles, your program is still adding value to a funding organization.
Many other issues were discussed during our last funder panel. If you missed-out on the last funder panel, JVA is offering another on May 15 covering Projected Federal Grant Availability. Click here for more information.