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What Evaluation Can Really Do for Nonprofits (A.K.A. What the heck is a Sector Driven Evaluation Strategy anyway?)

Written by Andrew Taylor & Ben Liadsky. 

Imagine that when it came time to do an evaluation, you could focus on the questions that were important for your organization and your community. Imagine that conducting an evaluation wouldn’t break your budget and overburden you or your staff, or seem like a useless exercise. Imagine that the evaluation process would produce evidence you could really use.

Imagine you had a strategy for making evaluation work for you.

ONN’s new project to develop a Sector Driven Evaluation Strategy aims to get nonprofits more actively involved in setting the evaluation agenda. This means shifting our perspective to a place where nonprofits feel empowered to make evaluation useful for them and for the people and communities they serve.

Our goal isn’t to tell nonprofits how to evaluate or what methodologies to use, but rather to help them negotiate the current landscape, while highlighting the ways in which evaluation can prove most valuable to nonprofits, communities, funders, and other stakeholders.

A better way

Whether big or small, in the arts or in social services, in Toronto or Kenora, more and more nonprofits are acknowledging the importance of evaluating their work.

However, the current system around evaluation doesn’t always suit nonprofits and their needs. Evaluation work in the sector is often driven by the needs of funders – governments, foundations, and others. It generates a lot of work and a lot of paper, but it often fails to deliver the evidence that nonprofits need in order to fulfill their missions.

There are also other areas of concern. Here are a few- how many do you recognize in your work?

1. Inconsistency over expectations and jargon. It isn’t always clear what should be studied and what’s the best way to go about getting that information.

2. Evaluation can be costly for nonprofits. Some in the sector question whether the return justifies the investment of time and money.

3. Voices are lost. Users of services and other community members don’t often have an active voice in setting the nonprofit evaluation agenda.   

In short, we know that some of these challenges have been around for years (in fact, we’re preparing our own literature review as you read this). We’re under no illusions that these issues are easy to solve, but we believe now is the time to do something about it as evaluation plays an increasingly important role in addressing social issues.

What’s our contribution?

There are already a number of tools and resources that exist for nonprofits to learn about particular methodologies and best practices. Yet, there is comparatively little regarding the systemic angle of negotiating what, when, and how to evaluate and where nonprofits fit within that system.

Guiding our efforts are some key questions such as: under what conditions is an evaluation worth doing, who is evaluation for, how is evaluation used, how can evaluation be more about learning, and how can evaluation be more system-wide, interconnected, and networked?

What will this mean for the sector?

We believe that at its ideal, evaluation can help a nonprofit make sense of what they do and how they do it. It provides an opportunity to engage with all stakeholders, reflect on both failures and successes and learn from them in order to make evidence-based decisions. It serves the ultimate purpose of contributing to a nonprofit’s mission to bettering their community.

Looking forward, we see a sector that will be more confident in its use of evaluation where the principles of engagement, learning and collaboration are at the forefront and evidence is used to its fullest potential.

We can work it out

Our work will involve many different angles and we’ll share those with you as we go along, but fundamentally, we need to have further conversations about what evaluation means or should mean for the sector.

As we develop a Sector Driven Evaluation Strategy, we’ll be reaching out to you to hear from nonprofits across Ontario.

Join us on this exciting new journey to develop an evaluation strategy for the sector, by the sector!

Get involved:

  1. Join our Evidence Network listserv  
  2. Share evaluation-related resources



  1. This sector driven evaluation strategy initiative is long overdue. Finally and hopefully, there will be an evaluation framework that truly captures experiential programming effectiveness and outcomes instead of current practices that forces service providers to fit a policy (read funds) driven evaluation mold.