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Tips for effective grant evaluation

It is important to know what outcomes are intended so we can judge the value or effect of our actions.

In a recent article from the publication Giving Forum, titled “Effective Grant Evaluation: A Funder’s Tips,” author Sharon DeMark from the Minnesota Community Foundation and the Saint Paul Foundation provides some tips for grant applicants to consider when preparing the evaluation for their project. I often find that information provided by grant makers can be extremely helpful for grant seekers—and this article is no exception. It offers some insights into what motivates grant makers when they are requesting program evaluations.

I’m often asked if funders expect every project to be successful, and if they’ll ask for the grant funds to be returned if a project wasn’t a success. Ms. DeMark writes, “If you don’t reach your goals, what you have learned and how that will inform your work is just as important.” She goes on to state that wrestling with questions such as, “Do our goals need to be changed?” or “If not, does some other component such as project design or personnel need to be adjusted?” allows us to continuously improve grant projects and their impact over time.

Ms. DeMark encourages potential grantees to consider the “Big So What?” question when preparing evaluations of their projects. She says this question means: “Why is this program important?” and she advises potential grantees not to confuse outputs with outcomes.

Some funders require logic models to be used in the evaluation section of a proposal. Logic models are diagrams that illustrate how a project is intended to produce specific results. Often, logic models show the flow from inputs to activities to outputs to outcomes. Grant writers who are asked to provide a logic model need to know the distinction between the last two; a simple way to think about them is to keep in mind that outputs come before outcomes.

Outputs are activities that are done or accomplished that help achieve outcomes. Examples of outputs include the number of students who participate in a music program, or the number of staff development workshops held for district music teachers during a school year.

Outcomes, on the other hand, are what results from what was done that is of value or benefit to others. Or, put another way, outcomes are changes that occur or differences that are made for students, teachers, and so on. So, using the examples above, outcomes would be described as the changes that would occur in students after participating in the music program or in teachers after participating in the staff development workshops. Outcomes relate to changes in behavior, knowledge, decision-making, skills, or capacities.

Here are a few questions from the Scottish Community Development Centre’s Learning Evaluation and Planning (LEAP) framework that you or your program staff can use to identify outcomes:

  1. What will be different as a result of what we do?
  2. For whom will things be different?
  3. What will be changed?
  4. What will be improved?
  5. What changes will make you think, “We’ve been successful and made a difference?

As you develop your project activities, LEAP suggests that you ask, “Why are we doing that?”—and the answer to this question is usually an outcome. Just like objectives, outcomes should be based on need, and they should be clear, realistic, and achievable during the grant period.

There are no guarantees that outcomes will occur as we hope they will, but according to LEAP, “It is important to know what outcomes are intended so we can judge the value or effect of our actions.”

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