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Tips for evaluating grant funded programs

By Samantha Grant

Focus group with one adult, a girl, and a boy
For the past year, I’ve been in a new Extension role as a research project director for the Center for Research and Outreach (REACH). I’ve learned so much about grant funded projects because our team supports the professional development, evaluation, and technical assistance of 41 Children, Youth, and Families At-Risk (CYFAR) programs around the country.

Do evaluation requirements for a grant project have you stressed out?

Writing and managing grants can be a big undertaking. Many large, national grants require certain evaluation measures. These measures vary by grant. I spent many years evaluating grant projects in Minnesota 4-H, and now I’m on the other side of the table enforcing grant guidelines. The biggest thing I’ve learned from my new perspective is that the funder is often trying to tell a larger story of how all their funded programs connect to the community change they want to address. Sometimes these evaluation measures are a perfect fit for your individual program, and sometimes they feel like a stretch. 

I want to be very transparent in telling you the most important rule of grant receiving: you have to fulfill the obligations to the grant. That means if they ask for evaluation, you must complete it. If you absolutely loathe the evaluation measures from your funder at the time of application, just say no. Not all grant funds are worth the headache. Know the grant requirements before applying and decide if they align with your program’s goals. Also think about how evaluation for the grant complements or detracts from your evaluation plan. 

Let’s say you got the grant. Hooray! Celebrate, and then get to work. Below are three tips I have for evaluating grant funded projects.

1. Build a logic model

Logic model, theory of change, whatever you call it, it’s the roadmap for your program. Sketch out the goals of your programs and what outcomes you hope to achieve. With this information, you’ll be better able to create an evaluation plan. You’ll also be in a better position to tell your funder what you are doing and what impacts you are striving for.

The CYFAR team has a logic model builder. You must create an account, but this free tool can aid in laying out the goals and outcomes of your program. 

2. Use multiple evaluation methods

You’re not stuck with one approach to evaluation (even if your funder only asks for one). Your funder might want you to collect surveys from youth at the beginning and end of the program. Survey fatigue is a real issue, especially with budding readers, so consider another evaluation method to get a richer picture from youth.

I once worked for a project where we added mid-program focus groups with teen leaders. We collected more robust data than we were getting from surveys, plus we learned about how youth were experiencing the program and could course correct. Double bonus!

3. Focus on impact

Maybe you won the grant lottery and there are no expectations for evaluation. You can create the evaluation plan you care about; with a side of some findings your funder will love. Funders want to know how the money they’ve invested in your program is making a difference. Collect stories from youth and families in your program (with permission, of course).

If reporting expectations from funders don’t ask for this type of data, share it anyway. Create a short report or a social media post to share with your stakeholders and send it to your funder. Chances are you’ll become the teacher’s pet.

Bottom line- You can evaluate your grants and still hold true to your program evaluation. You might just need to be a little bit creative. Do you struggle to connect your program evaluation goals with grant priorities? What are your lessons learned?

-- Samantha Grant, REACH Lab research project director

Special thanks to Suzanne van den Hoogenhof for the co-development of this content.

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