Friday, May 8, 2009


What's a thing? Merriam-Webster's definition can be found here - But to someone who has learned to write clearly, to use the word "thing" is to cheat - to say something when you can't really say anything. In high school and college, professors drove into my brain that the use of the word is unacceptable. To this day, I find myself still using the word when I can't think of another word that should be used. As an example, I was recently asked, "what is an activity and output?" "Well," I answered, "they are things that..." Now, I continued with my explanation to further state what activities and outputs are, but I used the dreaded word.

Now, why am I talking about the word thing? It is at most a lazy use of English to most people, but to an evaluator, it is much more insidious. In the past few weeks, I've had opportunity to review applications for funding, have had discussions with applicants, and have met with a few of our grantees. In many cases, when we discussed their program, there was sort of a placeholder - a thing that was not fleshed out in the development stage and now was sticking out like a sore thumb. In some cases, it was an assumption that something would happen. In other cases, it was just something that wasn't considered. In every case, it was a barrier to the success or effectiveness of the program.

As you know, I'm a bit of a fan of program theory focused evaluation and the construction of theory based logic models of programs or projects. The process forces the designer to think about the things in their models and at minimum, identify them. A well used model will provide the designer with an opportunity to think more about the thing and objectify it (make it real versus an abstract idea). Finally, once in place, it helps the designer with the next critical question - how do I measure my program?

This is a very common question that I hear from the nonprofits I work with. How do they measure their processes, their outputs, their outcomes. The first question I always ask is - "what are they?" The answer I often get is that they had this idea with a bunch of things. And so, I often ask them to draft out their model. Once the model is started and they start defining the things and what they are connected to, often the issue resolves itself and it becomes a question of not "how do I measure my program", but rather, what are the techniques and tools I can to measure this specific activity, output, or outcome? The underlying question changes from "what really is my program?" to "what are the most efficient and effective ways to measure the parts of my program?" It is that point that evaluation starts to make sense to the designer and the information that is needed to support the program is clarified.

So - my advice to nonprofits who are designing and/or are running programs and now have a need for evaluation is to engage in a form of program theory modeling as you develop the program to ensure that you really understand what it is you are trying to accomplish. For evaluators, the model will prove invaluable in shaping the evaluation work in which you engage.

As always, I'm open to comments - please feel free to share your own thoughts on this.

Best regards,

Charles Gasper

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