Program Evaluation for Nonprofit Organizations

What is program evaluation?

According to SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices, a program evaluation is “the systematic process of studying a program to discover how well it is  working to achieve intended goals.”PE_wordcloud

There are several reasons to evaluate a program:

  • Measureable results are important to grantmakers, which may include filing an annual report and interim reports. 
  • Grantmakers require an evaluation method in your grant proposal. 
  • Grantmakers want to see a proven track record of success. 
  • Effective program evaluation is a formative and summative tool that will help manage your organization.. 
  • To help you realize when to change tactics, expand, or cut your losses.

See the American Psychological Association’s “Why Evaluate?”

Goal Setting


Set goals for your program. It will make it easier for you to evaluate the level of your success if you know what success looks like.

There are many different ways to set goals, with no single method being the absolute best. Be careful not to set your goals too broadly or too unrealistically. Imagining your organization as being the largest food distributor for the needy on the planet is not a goal; it is a vision. When setting a goal, many organizations find the “SMART” method effective. According to the University of Virginia, a SMART goal is one that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time-bound. 

Evaluation Process

What are you evaluating? You should be able to answer this question in one sentence. Keep your goal specific. Here are several examples:

  • a free afterschool tutoring program for high risk students
  • a life skills program for the unemployed
  • a health awareness campaign

How will you determine the success of the program? Again, aim for a 1 sentence answer.

  • if student absenteeism in Baltimore City Public Schools decreases with better access to transportation
  • if school performance  in Maryland increases because high risk students receive free after school tutoring
  • if program participants find jobs after joining a life skills program 
  • if medical emergencies in a community go down after a health awareness campaign

How do you measure success? Assign hard numbers, or quantitative values, to your evaluation. Remember, aim for an accurate representation of what you hope to accomplish. Look at what similar programs have achieved and adjust accordingly. For example,

  • 1-point increase in students’ GPA after beginning tutoring
  • 75% of program participants finding employment within 6 months
  • 25% fewer ER visits within a year after the health awareness campaign

How will you gather data?

  • before and after surveys
  • data from government organizations and other groups
  • attendance headcounts and sign in sheets
  • interviews and focus groups
  • document reviews and sorting

In addition, always cover the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of your program. Ideally, this should be done during the planning stage of your program, but it is never too late to take care of this:  For example:

  • Who are you helping?
  • What are you doing?
  • When will the program begin and end?
  • Where are you working? (geographic location)
  • Why are you running this program? Does the need exist?
  • How are you going to do this?

 For more tools, see:

Community Tool Box’s Framework for Program Evaluation
University of North Carolina Greensboro's Program Evaluation Resource Center

Types of Results

Quantitative results always include numbers. For example, 10 people attended your event, or there has been a 2% decrease in homelessness in the last 5 years, etc. This kind of data is the most direct and empirical way to determine success or failure.
Qualitative results don’t involve numbers. Instead, they are made up of data from interviews and surveys. This kind of data can effectively register change, as well. . Qualitative data is harder to collect, but it is nonetheless helpful for programs that want to measure intangible and subjective issues such as “increase self-esteem,” or “teach life skills.” This type of data is valuable because it measures that which quantitative analysis often misses, i.e. the human aspect of your organization.  For instance,. “Sally felt so confident after the life skills program that she raised her hand in class for the first time ever.” This completes the whole picture, both qualitative and quantitative, and presents a more human representation of your organization.

Research Methods Knowledge Base's Qualitative Data

Australian Bureau of Statistics' Quantitative and Qualitative Data

Additional Resources

American Evaluation Association
Community Tool Box
Foundation Center’s Catalog of Nonprofit Literature (free access at your local Funding Information Network)
Basic Guide to Outcomes-Based Evaluation for Nonprofit Organizations with Very Limited Resources
The Global Fund for Children's Monitoring, Learning, and Evaluation

After the Grant: The Nonprofit's Guide to Good Stewardship , a Foundation Center Fundraising Guide 
Level Best: How Small and Grassroots Nonprofits can Tackle Evaluation and Talk Results  by Marcia Festen and Marianne Philbin

Need more assistance? 

Feel free to contact us by phone (410-396-5317), or email at

Grants Resource Center
Business, Science, and Technology Department
Enoch Pratt Free Library
Central Library/State Library Resource Center