State of Evaluation

State of Evaluation

Measurement and Evaluation Practices in Ontario’s Nonprofit Sector

Ontario’s nonprofit sector is made up of tens of thousands of organizations driven to build thriving communities and a dynamic province. They bring people together to address the social, cultural, and economic issues that act as obstacles to this vision. To succeed, public benefit organizations must be capable of responding to changing circumstances quickly and redirecting resources where they can help the most people or have the greatest benefit. This is why evaluation work is so important to the nonprofit sector.

Though it is important, evaluation work isn’t always easy. It can be time consuming, expensive, technically difficult and stressful. Over the last several years, we have sought to better understand how evaluation is practiced by Ontario’s public benefit nonprofits, and to identify strategies to make evaluation more efficient, more meaningful and more action oriented. We have learned that evaluation is often most useful when it is designed from the ground up in a collaborative way that creates safe spaces for discussion and informs deep learning. We have learned that there are many different approaches to evaluation, each useful under the right circumstances (and much less useful under the wrong circumstances). We have learned that there is quite a lot of evaluation work going on, but insufficient discussion of the intended purpose of this work. We don’t talk enough about whether evaluation efforts are delivering on their promise to create a sector that is more informed, more responsive, and more impactful.

Our discussion about how to improve evaluation practice has been limited, to date, by the lack of detailed information about current practice. We know nonprofits spend significant time and resources on evaluation,but we have not known exactly how much. While we know that some evaluation projects are much more useful than others, we have not known what proportion of evaluation reports get used across the province, by whom, or for what purpose. While we know that the evaluation function is often under-resourced, we have not known how often this is true, who pays for evaluation work, or who most commonly carries it out. The fact that we do not have a clear picture of how evaluation is practiced across the province may itself be an indication that our sector has not been as strategic as it needs to be in approaching this essential component of our work. Together, all of these issues have contributed to a dynamic that has sometimes led to an emphasis on accountability over learning and a missed opportunity to strengthen relationships across the sector and communities.

For these reasons, we are very excited to share with you the first-ever ‘State of Evaluation’ report for Ontario. This is the first detailed picture of how evaluation is practiced across our province, and how the findings of evaluation work are being translated into action. Our sincere hope is that this report sparks a rich discussion about improving evaluation practice and develop a strong, responsive, impactful nonprofit sector.