Evidence Based vs Performance Based Nonprofit Programs and Practices

The pressure is building. Nonprofit organizations are being asked, more and more, to demonstrate the outcomes and total impact of their programs. The building pressure is coming primarily from funders, who include government sources (federal, state, and local), foundations, corporations, and even individual donors. From top to bottom, funders of all shapes, sizes, and capacities are looking for demonstrable program outcomes and impact.

This push represents both a threat and an opportunity for nonprofit organizations.

  • As a threat, this change is a “shock to the system.” It may be different from the way you have operated programs in the past. The demands funders are placing on you may be heavy.
  • The opportunity is that those organizations that build capacity in outcomes and impact measurement can meet the needs of this growing funder movement and sustain funding moving forward.

Evidence-Based Programs and Practices

The growing push by funders has culminated in the wide acceptance of evidence-based funding. Evidence-based funding requires the use of evidence-based practices and evidence-based programs in order to both qualify for and be awarded certain sources of funding.

Evidence based means that the programs, approaches, or practices you use are supported by scientific evidence. Generally, these programs, approaches, and practices are rigorously evaluated by statistics and scientific method to prove that they, in fact, have a positive impact on the target population you serve. Evaluations prove that your intent of “making a difference” actually “makes a difference!”

Evidence based is different from anecdotal evidence and even historical traditions, conventions, feelings, or beliefs. While stories, anecdotes, and testimonials are great to have, they don’t qualify as evidence-based.

So what does this mean for you and your organization?

If you are set on applying for and potentially receiving evidence-based funding, your organization must either adopt programs and practices that others have proven are evidence based or you must invest in evaluation services to prove that your methods, procedures, services, practices, and programs make a measurable impact on your target population.

While the primary advantage to this scenario is that you can apply for these funding sources, there are a number of disadvantages to this situation, especially for smaller organizations.

  1. First, using evidence-based practices proven by another organization may undercut the identity and “differentiating” qualities of your organization. It is hard to standout against the crowd when the crowd all looks the same.
  2. Second, evaluation services can be expensive, time consuming, and a drain on internal organizational resources. While they are a necessary component to prove that your practices and programs are evidence based, generally they are “out-of-reach” for smaller organizations.

Performance-Based Programs and Practices

As you work in an ever evolving, shifting, and changing world, you cannot stand still in the status quo. However, you may not be able to invest the necessary resources to align with evidence-based funding in the short term.

If funders are looking for proof that your mission “does what you say it does,” then it is important to find a way to meet that need.

There is an opportunity to show funders that your programs have outcomes and that your organization is continually improving those outcomes by managing program performance.

At Sidekick Solutions we call this performance-based programs and practices.

Performance based is a combination of two things:

  1. It is the ability to measure, capture, collect, analyze, format, and then communicate program outcomes to both internal and external stakeholders.
  2. It is the ability to prove and demonstrate that your organization has performance management practices in place and the effectiveness of those practices are evidenced by continuously improving outcomes over time (i.e. trends of performance).

You must have both components to have a performance-based program or practice.

Performance-based programs and practices are only valuable to the funder audience you are targeting if you can show the outcome and also show that the outcome trends positively over time. The outcome itself is evidence that your program makes a difference and the trend is evidence of positive improvement toward solving a social challenge.

Both methods are important

The following is an opinion based on my own experience. However, this example shows how performance-based programs and practices can position your organization.

I would rather contribute (i.e. give time, knowledge, or money) to an organization that shows continuous, positive trends of improvement toward a desired program outcome than an organization that is static, but whose programs outcomes are more significant. I believe this because eventually the organization that is continuously improving will catch up to the other organization (and potentially surpass it); and because continuous improvement shows an organization’s flexibility, adaptability, innovation, and quality.

Managing performance is tough work. It requires discipline and determination. As a result, an organization that is continuously improving proves to me that they are attentive to the needs of those they serve, the needs of their donors and constituents, and are focused on delivering greater value to the community and society tomorrow than they do today. That is the definition of growth and capacity building. I feel that contributions are better served with a dynamic, growing, and capacity building organization than one that is static.

Performance-based practices and programs are a great first step for most organizations. They are a first step away from anecdote, stories, testimonials, conventions, and belief into a performance and value driven method.

I am not suggesting that performance-based methods replace evidence-based practices and programs. There is no “either or” or “one over the other.” Evidence-based practices and programs that are proven through evaluation are critically important for the sustainability of the nonprofit sector. Developing evidence-based programs and practices that actually create lasting change to solve social challenges are critically important.

Both performance based and evidence based are important together. There is no situation where one is more valuable than the other because they both work together toward achieving the same goal: solving difficult social challenges.

However, I am suggesting that evidence based programs and practices are something that needs to be worked toward. Without measuring the performance of your programs and practices first, you won’t know if evidence-based evaluation is even worth the investment.

As a result, performance-based programs and practices and the methodology that accompany them are the step that should precede evidence-based evaluation. Performance-based methods should also continue after evidence-based evaluation is performed.

Performance-based methods give your organization the tools to meet funder needs, strengthen program outcomes, define best practices, and learn in a systematic way. All of these results set your organization down a path of continuous improvement, which helps your organization and the people you serve.