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Evaluation: This Isn’t a Test

Program evaluation. Isn’t that something only big organizations do? It’s complex and it takes too much time. And there’s only one “right” way to do it…

Any of these myths sound familiar? Have you bought into them yourself? The truth is, evaluation isn’t a test you can fail, it’s a tool you should use. And it’s never too late to put it to work. Small museum practitioners can focus evaluation efforts on utility within programs. Our evaluation plans need to be tailored to our needs, and to the questions we need answered. We don’t undertake evaluation for the sake of research; we look for practical, relevant information we can use to improve our work.

According to Deborah Linnell of Third Sector New England, we evaluate to:

  • Prove we are worthy of public trust: Our organizations don’t exist for their own sake. We exist to serve the greater good of our communities. Our ability to speak to why the work we do is important, and to provide evidence to support this claim, is what helps the community have confidence in our mission.
  • Show social investment is working: We rely on the generosity of donors and funders. To show these supporters their investments are working, we want to give them a positive return on investment (ROI). This demonstrates we are good stewards of their funds and inspires confidence for future investment. 
  • Ensure tangible community benefits: In service to the public, there is an expectation of beneficial services. Whether this is through proper collections methods, educational exhibits or local history expertise, evaluation helps us ensure we are providing benefits the community finds valuable. 
  • Understand program delivery: Sometimes evaluation is critical to helping us understand how a program works. Using process-based evaluation, we can look at the inner workings of our programs to understand how they function, what might need to be changed to improve them, and even what is scalable for other organizations.
  • Inform planning: You need data to inform your decisions. Whether you are planning the budget, the calendar, or the “next big thing,” data helps you evaluate where you’ve been, where you are and where you should go next.
  • Improve projects, programs and processes: While every organization may not be trying to get bigger, it’s reasonable to expect that we want to get better. Evaluation helps us determine how to do this in ways that meet the wants, needs and expectations of those we serve. Improving our projects, programs and processes should make our jobs easier and our constituents happier. 

Remember, program evaluation isn't a test – it's a tool. It's your tool! For more information about evaluation, contact Local History Services or visit these online resources:

• The Pell Institute’s Evaluation Toolkit
• Strengthening Nonprofits’ Measuring Outcomes
• Better Evaluation’s Utilization-focused Evaluation
• Sumac’s Five Tools for Evaluating the Success of Your Project

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