top of page

Program Evaluation

Strong evaluations make grant reporting a snap.

a hand holding a pen writing in a notebook

The importance of program evaluation has probably been one of the most major changes in the nonprofit world during my thirty-five years in the business. In olden days, after completing the project, you wrote a nice report letter to funders telling them how well everything went and thanking them for making it possible, and you were done. No so today.

Free book!

An Introduction to Grants and Freelance Grant Writing 

Contains this article and more.

With the enormous increase in the number of nonprofits during the last two decades and the consequent increase in competition for funds, funders of all kinds now insist that charities measure the effectiveness of their programs and include in their grant requests how they will do that. Foundations want their investments in your charity to be money well spent. Additionally, corporate and government funders must justify their grant programs to their stockholders or elected representatives. So, when writing the grant proposal, don’t try to brush off the question about program evaluation. That can quickly sink your chances.


Generally, I admonish writers to avoid jargon, but evaluation is one place where you must know and use the right lingo. Here are a few of the most important terms you will need:


  • Formative Methods: This is fancy talk for observing how a program is progressing while it is taking place, focusing on the process. Perhaps you have stood in the back of a class noting students’ reactions to the teacher’s presentation. You always thought you were just taking notes, but you were actually employing formative evaluation methods

  • Summative Methods: When the project ends, and you do a survey, formal or informal, of participants or of those who ran the program, you are using summative methods to measure the outcomes.


Next come goals, objectives, benchmarks, and strategies. Goals and objectives are often spoken about as if they are the same thing, but they're quite different.


  • Goals represent the ultimate achievement of your program or organization; they might well be so grand as to be unreachable or take place long after the grant period.

  • Objectives are the measurable steps you need to take to get to your goal. You usually need to accomplish several objectives to reach the goal.

    • Goals are broad; objectives are narrow.

    • Goals are general intentions; objectives are precise.

    • Goals are intangible; objectives are tangible. 

    • Goals are abstract; objectives are concrete.

    • Goals can't be validated as is; objectives can be validated.

  • Benchmarks are steps you must complete along the way to accomplish each objective.

  • Strategies are the activities you will undertake to reach each benchmark.


Here are two examples:


The United Nations: The ultimate goal of the United Nations might be thought of as world peace. Its objectives would embrace universal education and healthcare, and elimination of nuclear armaments. The benchmarks to be achieved would include resolving specific disputes around the world and improving agriculture in different countries. Strategies would be holding peace talks, delivering food to impoverished people, establishing better healthcare facilities.


Children’s Literacy ProgramThe goal of a children’s literacy program might be to have every child in a school reading at grade level by the end of third grade. Depending on the grade level at which the children in that school now read, this might be a multi-year program, extending well beyond the time period of the grant you are seeking. (Grant time periods are typically a year but can be longer.)


An objective for a one-year grant for this program might be that kindergarten and first-grade students will read at grade level, or above, by the end of the first year. Benchmarks that must be achieved to reach that objective would be for all K–3 students to be enrolled in the program and for students to meet with the specialist teachers for an hour, three times each week. A strategy would be to hire specialist teachers to conduct the program.


If you have mastered the terms above, you won’t find what I call The Dreaded Logic Model quite so dreadful. A logic model consists of aligning your goals, objectives, etc. into a chart, demonstrating the causality and correlation of each to the others. There are, naturally, another set of terms used with logic models. Here is how they roughly relate to the words we’ve already learned.


  • Inputs (resources you will put into the program) = Strategies

    • We will employ 30 reading specialist teachers to work in the school.

  • Outputs (activities you will undertake and who will take part) = Benchmarks

    • All K-3 students will be enrolled in the program.

    • Students will meet with the specialist teachers for an hour, three times each week.

  • Outcomes/Impacts (results, consequences of the above) = Objectives and Goals

    • Kindergarten and first-grade students will read at grade level or above by the end of the first year.

    • All students will read at grade level or above.

Short-term outcomes are like Objectives, the specific things that have changed. Medium and long-term outcomes are more like Goals, or the results of making the short-term changes.

​Here’s a section from a logic model I had to prepare, with the funder’s headings and my responses below:


You can see how each column’s response leads to the one to the right. There were around 10 activities for this grant, some of which led to the same Longer-term Outcomes.

Your evaluation methods, as well as your specific goals and objectives, form an integral and important part of any grant proposal. Taking care in preparing the evaluation section of your proposal accomplishes two things:

  1. It makes your proposal stronger.

  2. It makes your report on your project much easier to do. With established objectives, benchmarks, and strategies, your report will have substance and clarity.

One final note: Staff members can certainly perform the evaluation, but there is even greater strength in an evaluation performed by an outside person. Many consultants do this work. They can be quite expensive, but their costs can usually be included as part of your grant budget, and you will be able to use their report to bolster your future grant applications.


For further reading:

The Foundation Center staff provide an extensive bibliography of websites about evaluation methods:

The University of Wisconsin offers excellent examples of logic models, both templates and filled in, along with a bibliography.

Other articles you might find interesting: 

     Writing a Proposal They will Want to Read

     10 Most Common Grant Writing Mistakes

     Thompson, Waddy. The Quick Wise Guide to Writing Grant Proposals

bottom of page