How Evaluations Make Programs Stronger

Thursday, August 21, 2014
By Michael D. Smith, Director of the Social Innovation Fund
When funders invest in programs and organizations, they want some assurance that their bets will pay off. One way to increase the odds of that happening is to first identify programs and organizations that already have evidence that the people and communities being served are benefiting.
But to do better at ensuring they get the results they want to see, funders need to do more than just make thoughtful investments, even in programs that are working.  They also need to build in plans for ongoing evaluations of the work they are supporting.  And not just to collect evidence of progress against goals but to continue to strengthen that work.
That’s an approach the Obama Administration has taken through what it calls “tiered-evidence” evaluations, and which have been successfully used by the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.
The premise of the tiered approach is that evidence of effectiveness lies along a continuum, ranging from preliminary to strong. Another principle is that programs move along this continuum by conducting more and increasingly rigorous evaluations. Over time, they move from tier to tier as they amass evidence and use that evidence to strengthen the work.
Tiered-evaluations play a major role in the The Social Innovation Fun (SIF), a major White House initiative and program of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), that combines public and private resources to grow the impact of innovative, community-based solutions that have compelling evidence of improving the lives of people in low-income communities throughout the United States.
One of the key goals of the Social Innovation Fund is to build the evaluation capacity of nonprofit organizations so they can successfully assess whether their programs are truly creating impact.
To do so, we have developed the Social Innovation Fund Evaluation Plan (SEP) Guidance. This document provides a common framework and shared understanding of what rigorous evaluation means, the elements and criteria against which SIF grantees and subgrantees plans are assessed and approved, and suggestions other organizations can use as they develop their own evaluations.
While the evaluation design is based on SIF definitions and expectations, it could be applied to a variety of organizations and programs. The guide provides a common framework and shared understanding of what rigorous evaluation means, the elements and criteria against which plans will be assessed and approved, how implementation will be monitored, and how results will be reported and shared.
The Social Innovation Fund groups evidence levels into three categories or tiers: preliminary, moderate and strong. For all evidence-focused federal programs, the higher you are on the continuum of evidence, the more ready you are for scale and the more funding you can receive.  
This model aims to:
  • Infuse evidence in programming and grantmaking decisions
  • Advance the evidence base of all funded programs
  • Increase the number of interventions on the upper end of the evidence continuum
  • Improve program models by applying data and outcomes analysis in real time

One foundation that has successfully applied a tiered-evidence approach its work is the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Gabriel Rhoads, Director of Evaluation and Learning describes the benefits that have resulted:

“Through our past work, we’ve realized the importance of aligning evaluation planning with program growth. It helps ensure appropriate budgeting, and also that a program is increasing the number of youth served in a way that will meet an evaluation’s sample size requirements. The Social Innovation Fund evaluation plan process supports this alignment well. In fact, EMCF has incorporated parts of the Social Innovation Fund evaluation planning template into our evaluation efforts with grantees in our non-Social Innovation Fund portfolios.”
The evaluation planning process outlined in the guide is intense, but it’s comprehensive. It’s an exciting step forward for us, and – we hope – everyone in our field.  
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