One of the top reasons outdoor programs struggle to raise funds is that they don’t have a solid structure in place to measure the effects of their work and communicate those effects to potential funders. These measurable effects – or outcomes – are things that go beyond just getting young people outdoors; they should actually speak to making positive, measurable improvements when it comes to factors like youth development, health and wellness, and environmental stewardship. Having solid quantitative and qualitative data about your work and its outcomes is crucial to raising the funds that will keep your program going strong.
Program evaluation is a process that allows you to not only get a sense for how participants feel about your program and areas where improvement or change is needed, but also gather data that will help both existing and potential funders understand the real work you’re doing with youth. Program evaluation can help you answer questions like:
- Are we achieving our mission?
- How do the youth we serve feel about our program?
- How are we impacting the youth we serve?
- What is working right now, what isn’t, and how can we improve?
- How can we communicate the benefits of our work to stakeholders and funders?
Simply put, a program evaluation gives you data that helps you interpret the connection between what you’re doing in the program and what’s happening as a result. It’s an especially important tool to use if you have a Theory of Change in place (and we advocate that you do); to learn more about this, visit the Theory of Change Path on the TYO website. In addition, you’ll find a much more thorough explanation of program evaluation, along with sample documents and guides, in the Program Evaluation Path.
Before you can evaluate your program’s efficacy, you have to define the outcomes you wish to see as a result of your work; this is where a detailed Theory of Change can be of real help. But even if you don’t create one of those, it’s fairly simple to at least come up with a list of desired outcomes – i.e. the tangible changes you wish to see as a result of your program’s positive impact on its participants.
To begin, think about outcomes as both short-term and long-term. The short-term outcomes are the ones you might expect to see after a single outing or activity. These could be as simple as increased physical activity or increased participation in a group setting – something easily measurable after a one-time event. Long-term outcomes are measured over the duration of your program – perhaps an increase in willingness to communicate or an increase in interpersonal relationships. For a more detailed explanation and some examples, see our Guide: Outcomes and Indicators for Long and Short Term Programs.
Now comes the tricky part – how will you measure the outcomes you’ve defined? The good news is that there are quite a few options, and you can choose to employ as many or as few as you’d like. Some basic evaluation tools include:
- Observations: This includes both your own observations and those of other adults who interact with your participants, and they should be noted in relation to your desired outcomes.
- Interviews with participants: These can be both casual and informal experiences; as with surveys, the goal is to understand participants’ perceptions of the program.
- Surveys: These might include pre-program and post-program surveys, as well as ones administered anytime during the program. The idea with pre-program surveys is to capture the participants perceptions of what will happen; the post-program surveys offer a reflection on what did
- Third-Party Data: This is information you receive from outside sources, like schools or parents, about your participants.
INTERPRETING YOUR DATA
Once you’ve gathered all of your observations, surveys, and other data, it’s important to spend some time analyzing what it all means, and how it relates to your mission and your desired program outcomes – this, of course, is the actual evaluation in program evaluation!
For long-term program evaluation, spreadsheets are a handy tool for organizing multiple levels of information, and if you understand how to use formulas, they can provide tangible metrics for certain categories of information. Visit our Sample Explanation of Data Management, Coding & Input and our Sample Codebook and Analysis Guide for a detailed explanation of how to analyze and organize your data.
When you’re reviewing data, you’re looking for a few general things:
- Does the data reflect your perception of the program’s success?
- Are there any surprises in the data?
- If you collected data over time, were there differences as the program progressed?
For further information on how to interpret your findings, see our Guide: Making Sense of Your Program Evaluation Data.
The data you gather in a program evaluation will allow you to celebrate successes and help you make adjustments to improve your program in the future. Consider creating a report or update of some sort to share your overall findings with stakeholders and funders; these may be different kinds of reports, depending on your needs. An Evaluation Report is one tool that you can use to communicate your findings; another is a Program Evaluation Overview – the links here show a sample of each.
Once you’ve done one round of program evaluations, you may want to continue the process in the future to continually refine and improve your program so that you aim for the best outcomes possible for the youth you serve!
top photo by Ashley Batz