What is Evaluation and Why is it Important?

The notion of evaluation has been around a very long time. In fact, the Chinese created a large scale evaluation system that facilitated and qualified the hiring of their civil servant workforce as long ago as 2000 B.C. In addition to its long history, evaluation has varied definitions and may often mean different things to different people. Evaluation can be seen as synonymous with tests, descriptions, documents, or sometimes management. Although numerous definitions have been used over the years, the comprehensive definition presented by the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (1994) is what ACT considers to be the most accurate:

Evaluation: A systematic investigation of the worth of an object.

If you plug in the term “grant activity” in place of the word “object” in this definition, you will find our commonly accepted definition of “grant evaluation.”

Grant Evaluation: A systematic investigation of the worth of grant activity.

Grant evaluation is a vital part of the grant application and implementation process. From the grant writing stage, most funders will require your organization to layout your plan for how you intend to measure the accomplishment of your grant goals, objectives, and activities and to what level of effectiveness these elements would be fulfilled by the work you do associated with the grant funding.

But, why is this so important to funders? The main reason behind its importance lies in the fact that grant dollars almost always have strings attached. Funders give grants because they want to see the money go towards achieving a particular initiative or policy. A good evaluation will produce objective information on how well and to what degree you accomplished the funder’s initiatives as well as your commitments to the funder (which are tied with such initiatives and defined by your proposal goals, objectives, and activities). This, in turn, allows the funder to report to its constituents or stakeholders on its overarching accomplishment of the initiatives as produced by its pool of grantees.

Grant evaluation to funders is kind of like hiring a personal trainer to an everyday guy (let’s call him Jim) who just doesn’t have the drive or ability to get in shape for himself. Let’s say Jim’s goal is to lose 20 pounds and bulk up his arms. Jim – for one or more reasons – hasn’t been able to achieve this for himself or doesn’t feel it is within his expertise to do so. Therefore, Jim decides to contract with Jennifer (a personal trainer) after Jennifer shows him her case studies on the 10 other clients she helped lose at least 20 pounds and bulk up their arms. Jim pays Jennifer to accomplish his very specific goals of weight loss and arm strengthening. Jim uses a scale to measure if he gains or loses weight and he uses a tape measure to determine if he bulks his arms up. Jim wants to accomplish this goal by December. If Jennifer doesn’t help him achieve this goal within the time frame, he will terminate his contract with her. If he feels progress has been made, he may continue to fund her services if he has the money.

So, in this scenario, Jim represents a funder and Jennifer represents the nonprofit grantee. Instead of achieving the goal of helping someone lose weight and bulk up, the nonprofit may have goals of reducing teen pregnancy in a particular community (which happens to align with the rural youth health initiatives of the funder). The funder contracts – through a grant – the nonprofit to conduct certain interventions (as defined by the grant proposal) in its community to attempt to accomplish the teen pregnancy reduction goal. Just like Jim, the funder isn’t going to keep giving the nonprofit money to do this work unless the nonprofit can prove that a reduction has occurred due to its interventions related to the grant program. Providing this objective data assists the funder in reaching its overarching goal of improving the rural health of youth. Similarly, objective data obtained through weighing himself on a scale and measuring his arms helps Jim know that he is reaching his goals.

Evaluation is also important because it has the ability to reduce wasteful spending by both grantees and funders. Evaluation data – if collected, analyzed, and reported correctly – can support such stakeholders in making resource distribution decisions. When a grantee knows that his/her objective of raising academic achievement in math by 25% has been accomplished, for example, the grantee can then concentrate its grant dollars and activites on other aspects of the grant program. Moreover, this informs the grantee of the fact that the intervention used by the grantee – whether being a tutoring program or an instructional technology software intervention – actually is effective at reaching its academic achievement benchmarks. When that grantee moves forward in applying for additional funding, these data will help to convince this or other funders that the proposed initiative has a good chance of replicating success.

It is important to understand that most grantors (especially government grantors) require their grant awarded organizations to only contract their evaluation services to independent “third party” evaluators. A third party is always preferred over a grantee performing its evaluation in-house. This is due to the fact that an impartial expert from outside your organization is more likely to report objective information. Click here to read how ACT meets this third party requirement.

Working under the leadership of some of the most reputable and highly qualified experts in the country, ACT’s grant evaluation team specializes in the assessment and evaluation of grants. We are experts in both formative and summative evaluation. Click here to read more about our approach to these common types of evaluation. ACT views grant evaluation as a systematic way for an organization to learn from and to improve its programs, policies, activities, and practices. As we assess all of these elements and their interactions with a particular grant, we can collaboratively determine what is working and what isn’t working. In the future, this will help you re-direct your grant writing and programmatic efforts on only those activities that work. A quality grant evaluation will carefully examine a number of factors related to and involved with a grant initiative in a much more comprehensive way than one would gain from just the observation of a grant program that occurs on a day-to-day basis. In all the evaluations that ACT performs, much of our attention is focused on performance measurement. This is an ongoing auditing and reporting of grant and programmatic accomplishments compared against progress made towards pre-established goals, objectives, and benchmarks. Using specific indicators and performance measurement criteria for every evaluation performed helps us identify areas of various grant initiatives that need improvement, and whether the grant is achieving its goals and milestones, defined by a reason.

Grant evaluation is also extremely important because it will impact your eligibility for future funding and for multi-year renewals of the grant award. Just like Jim in the example above, if Jennifer doesn’t help him lose weight and bulk up as well as proving that these outcomes happened because of her personal training, then he won’t contract her anymore.

It is important to know that in most circumstances, grant evaluation services can be paid for out of the grant award and should typically be performed by a “third party” professional – using a sound and balanced methodology which incorporates valid and appropriate statistical testing techniques. This approach will ensure that the evaluation is objective, that it provides results that are accurate, and that the results provide the funder with the reporting information that is required to help make certain your eligibility is secure for your current grant and for future grant awards. This is the bottom line.

Here is an overview of why grant evaluation is important…

  • Helps you to gain an understanding of the funder’s grant implementation requirements.
  • Helps document the grant’s effectiveness.
  • Helps examine strengths and weaknesses of varying grant elements, including interventions, agency policies, and protocols.
  • Helps prove to the funder that positive outcomes were achieved so that current funding is sustained and future funding can be pursued.
  • Helps prove specific outcomes are achieved so that a grantee can persuade a funder that its initiatives are worth current and future funding.