Aloha United Way Sharpens Its Focus on Evaluation

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Aloha United Way (AUW), one of Oahu’s best known social sector nonprofit organizations, faces a unique challenge: It is both a nonprofit in the traditional sense as it uses its revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission, and also serves as a funder, making grants to its nonprofit partner agencies as it looks to address key community issues through collaboration and collective action. Focusing on three impact areas—Education, Poverty Prevention, and Safety Net Services—AUW advances the work of its nonprofit partners not only through grant-making and fundraising assistance, but also through capacity building and mentorship.

In recent months, AUW has begun to focus on evaluation as a component of its capacity building support of nonprofit partner agencies. These efforts are being led by Ophelia Bitanga-Isreal, Associate, Grants & Foundation, and Marc Gannon, Vice President, Community Impact. As Hawaii nonprofits—like their mainland counterparts—are increasingly asked to demonstrate their effectiveness and social impact through evaluation, AUW has likewise sought to bring greater rigor in assessing its own work, as well as that of its nonprofit partner agencies’ funded programs. I reached out to Ophelia and Marc via email to learn more about AUW’s efforts on the evaluation front, and the leadership it hopes to provide to community organizations seeking to create meaningful impact to those they serve.

 

What has been the impetus for AUW’s greater focus on evaluation? Asked another way: Of the many challenges facing Hawaii’s nonprofits, why focus on evaluation, and why now?

We know that the concept of evaluating program effectiveness is not new to the nonprofit sector. There certainly are local nonprofit agencies that have already incorporated some level of evaluation in their program delivery. Child and Family Service, for example, is well advanced in its use of evaluation to measure the effectiveness of its programs. However, we have recognized a couple of trends over recent years.

First, funding organizations – especially federal grantmakers – are more frequently requiring their grantees to use an evaluative process as a requirement of their grants; and they’re requiring more than just outputs, such as the number of clients served. Funders want to know outcomes, the long-term impact that a program provides to its clients.

Second, private donors are becoming more sophisticated and savvy when it comes to their contributions. Today, donating is not simply about being charitable; it’s about investing in programs that demonstrate effectiveness and impact. Donors, more and more, want to know that the money they give makes a difference.

As a result, while a fair amount of our work is about funding and supporting our nonprofit partner agencies in their efforts to provide effective programs, we also have the onus to be good stewards of the investments of our donors. Evaluation then becomes a critical means of determining if the programs are effective, meeting the needs of the community, and the interests of donors.

Developing the capacity for evaluation is critical, for both our agency as a funder, and our nonprofit partner agencies as service providers. This is especially true as nonprofit organizations have had to operate in the years following the Great Recession and with limited resources to go around, funders have had to be more prudent about which programs to fund. Evaluation, again, is the means for assessing where resources can do the greatest good for the community.

Beyond that, AUW embraces “evaluative thinking” – that is, we understand that evaluation is a means of identifying how to adjust the work that we do to serve our community better. Evaluative thinking goes beyond collecting data; it’s a mindset – maybe even a work ethic – of always striving to improve and increase the lasting, positive impact to our community. More than helping our nonprofit partner agencies develop a methodology of evaluation, we want to support their transition to a culture of evaluative thinking; an understanding that evaluation shouldn’t be just a function of a grant award, but a way of doing things better.

What positions AUW to be a community leader on the issue of evaluation, i.e., to initiate these conversations on evaluation within the local nonprofit sector?

We’re uniquely positioned, both as a funder and as a convening organization, to be able to bring together a large network of nonprofit organizations to start a collective movement toward evaluation.  We’re also able to bring resources to the table, such as training workshops and technical assistance we’ve provided to our grantees. We’re not simply imposing evaluation upon them, but helping them build their capacity to do it. And, because we’re strengthening our own internal evaluation process, we think it sends a signal that we’re committed to this important endeavor and we’re bringing our nonprofit partners along with us.

We were recently asked if it’s the role of funders to lead the movement toward increased evaluation. We think that’s its not just our role, but our responsibility to our donors, nonprofit partner agencies and to our community. We can’t talk about improving the conditions of our community without evaluating our work for impact.

 

Many small-to-medium sized nonprofit organizations indicate they simply don’t have the capacity to deal with evaluation—they feel they are barely keeping their heads above water in their program work. What support or guidance does AUW offer to organizations in this position?

Aloha United Way is mindful of the challenges that many smaller nonprofit organizations face in providing services. Evaluative activities are often categorized as low priority, much like filing paperwork. The truth is that evaluation is very much a part of the program work being performed, maybe even equal in value to the work itself. Another way to look at this is opportunity cost. What am I getting for $1 invested in Program A versus $1 invested in Program B?

Agencies can begin the movement toward evaluation with the resources they already have and then build their capacity and infrastructure from there. As part of the value we bring to our nonprofit partner agencies, we provide technical assistance on measuring and evaluating programs. We’re excited that we will soon be an intermediary sponsor of AmeriCorps VISTA members, which are individuals recruited to work at local nonprofit organizations and public agencies to help build capacity. We’ll be able to deploy VISTAs to help agencies who want to develop their evaluative activities but who need resources to get started.

 

Donors to AUW (or other nonprofits) may feel that the focus on evaluation is a red herring, that money is better spent funding direct service programs. What would your response be to those donors?

When we first started our internal discussions about evaluation, we acknowledged that donors may not be as interested in funding evaluation efforts as they would direct service activities. Donors, of course, want to maximize an agency’s ability to do important work. But just as we believe that it’s our responsibility to support evaluation among our partners, we also believe that it’s our responsibility to educate our donors on the value of evaluation. This goes hand-in-hand with being good stewards of donors’ contributions. We think that part of telling the story of the work being done in the community is showing the effectiveness of that work. That can only be accomplished through evaluation, and we believe that donors will come to look at evaluation as a way of ensuring that their dollars are supporting important and useful work in the community.

What are AUW’s near-term and long-term goals regarding evaluation, both internally and in its grant making work?

We are very excited that we’ve embarked on this transformative journey toward evaluation. Internally, we’ve already begun to take deliberate steps toward incorporating evaluative thinking in all aspects of our work, from our administrative processes to our grant making efforts. Long term, we know that this will result in a work environment that challenges each of us to think about the work we do and to constantly strive to refine and improve that work. We also know that a more robust evaluative process will help guide our funding decisions to invest in programs that will have lasting impact. In the end, we’ll be able to bring more resources into the community to support those programs.

With regards to our grant making, potential applicants will notice a marked increase in our focus on evaluation. We recently released a request for proposals (RFP) that required our applicants to demonstrate their commitment to the evaluative process, or their willingness to develop an evaluation system. We supported this requirement by offering resources through an AmeriCorps VISTA funded through the grant award. We intend to continue incorporating evaluation as a requirement for funding as a means of inculcating evaluative thinking in our grantees; more and more, as this becomes standard practice, we expect to eventually help create a culture of evaluation among all our nonprofit partner agencies.

 

What does AUW feel that evaluation makes possible for its partner agencies? What does AUW believe embracing evaluation will make possible for the clients that those agencies serve?

This question is aptly worded – evaluation is about possibilities and not about imposing an onerous process. It will allow our partner agencies to look at their work in a different way; to see where they can make adjustments or course corrections to better serve the community in the way they envisioned. Additionally, it will help them to demonstrate to other funders the effectiveness of their work and the ability to monitor what they are doing.

More broadly, we also believe that, as all our nonprofit partner agencies more routinely incorporate evaluation into their work, the measurements they’ll be collecting will reveal where opportunities and connections can be made across agencies. It’s exciting to consider that, eventually, we’ll be working much more collaboratively with each other, maximizing the limited resources available to our nonprofit sector.

Of course, this will translate to more effective approaches to supporting, not just the clients at each individual agency, but our community as a whole. Evaluation allows us to improve services and to have genuine impact. That’s good for everyone. 

 

What would it take for your organization to initiate meaningful conversations about evaluation? What would evaluation make possible for your organization, and for those you serve?