Effective learning is the key to effective evaluation say Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer of the Center of Evaluation Innovation based in Washington D.C. The two assert that nonprofits must constantly ask the right questions and fight their own biases in order to employ evaluative thinking about their work.

Luke Michael wrote this report for ProBonoNews:

“Our core proposition is that foundations and non-profits often jump to collecting data and setting up measurement systems without thinking about their surrounding environment,” Beer said. “As a result we see a lot of foundations and non-profits in the US have spent a lot of resources collecting data and doing evaluation that never gets used.

“So groups need to begin building the organizational capacity to use the data before collecting it or all that effort is for nothing.” A key component of this approach is that organizations must ask the right questions they want evaluated so they can get the right data and use it successfully. These questions must be action-focused and invite answers that would make a real difference to an organization’s work.

A powerful question also must not be too vague or broad, such as “how can we make sure everyone has mental health care?” Coffman and Beer said a better question would be: “How can we enroll the hardest-to-reach communities where we don’t have any existing relationships or partners?” They said once you have the right questions, then you can identify the data you need to answer them.


Coffman said foundations needed to provide NFPs with the funds to evaluate complex areas. She said research in the US showed less than 10 per cent of foundations funded evaluation of individual grants.

“In order to answer questions and get data from grantees you have to support the capacity to do it,” she said. “This is very important because most problems that non-profits and philanthropy tries to solve are complex. And it is not possible to know at the beginning if the choices you’ve made are the right ones without testing it.”