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Four Things We Learned from Evaluating Our Impact

By Sydney Jones on September 7th, 2017

As an essential practice in Active Living By Design (ALBD)’s Community Action Model, we often talk about cultivating a Culture of Learning. And as ALBD’s evaluation specialist, helping our team learn is part of my job description! Learning what works and what doesn’t is essential for nonprofits, governments, and partnerships to make the most impact in communities. This often means first asking: “How do we know the impact we’re making?”

Last year, ALBD launched a process to answer this question. By evaluating the impact of our work with communities and the foundations that support healthy community initiatives, we have created a new, ingrained learning opportunity that helps us identify successes and where we can improve.

We developed our impact evaluation in two phases. First, I led the team through a collaborative process to create a core set of indicators that could help us determine our impact. The indicators needed to align with ALBD’s mission and values and also be relevant across our projects. To ensure that the evaluation would yield meaningful insights, I synthesized input from everyone on the team. Next, we invited our clients (funders and coordinators of local healthy community initiatives) to rate ALBD’s impact using these indicators. We integrated funders’ evaluations into an existing annual feedback process. For coordinators of local initiatives, we used a new process to gather everything we needed in 20-minute phone calls. The evaluation process sparked new conversations with our partners, and it’s helping our team identify opportunities to improve and to articulate areas where our work is impacting community health and wellbeing.

Here are some of the key insights we learned along the way:

Start by identifying your evaluation goals—then re-visit them at each step.

After the first phase of the impact evaluation, an ALBD team member asked questions that I thought we had already settled: “What is the value of evaluating our impact? How will we use what we learn?” The questions prompted us to revisit our motivation for the evaluation and led to valuable discussion about whether the approach we were developing would achieve our goals. Those conversations also prepared us to approach funders and grantees about participating in the evaluation.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Using a defined set of indicators with a rating system provided consistent metrics for evaluating ALBD’s projects. However, engagements with each of our partners are unique. Respondents’ comments about the indicators provided important context that helped us interpret the ratings. They also identified valuable concepts and impacts that we had not yet considered in our internal conversations.  

Set the tone for learning.

I was impressed by the willingness of funders and community grantees to participate in the evaluation process. As I spoke with respondents, it was clear that strong relationships with ALBD staff were one motivation for their thoughtful participation. Our team is committed to establishing authentic connections, but those strong relationships also have the potential to discourage critical feedback. In situations like these, setting the tone for learning together helps to create a positive and comfortable environment for respondents to provide honest feedback and for staff to openly receive it.

If possible, dedicate a staff member and keep everyone involved.

ALBD was fortunate to be able to dedicate a part-time staff member to conduct the evaluation. I provided continuity across phases of the process, which helped to tie the findings together and identify broader themes. It was also key to have the entire ALBD team involved in interpreting the results. With distinct perspectives based on their unique roles in the organization, internal discussion from all team members generated important new insights.

I hope other organizations will consider incorporating impact evaluation into their own culture of learning. As Joanne Lee highlighted, “The willingness to learn is a choice.” Over the past year, ALBD chose to expand our learning by investing staff time and resources in evaluating the impact of our work. This investment is paying off as we use new insights to refine our approach, improve communication with our partners about what we do, and continue learning.

Sydney Jones

Evaluation Associate

Sprouting gardener and equity-driven epidemiologist.