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John Bare of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation explains how nonprofits can learn about setting evaluation priorities based on storytelling and “sacred bundles.”

One reason nonprofits struggle with evaluation is that they are usually trying to figure out what someone else—a funder, a government agency, or some expert—wants them to measure. When I talk to nonprofit staff, I ask them to tell me what they—not anyone else—need to track while a program is unfolding in order to observe what’s working well or to know when adjustments are needed. This utilization-focused approach creates a bridge from evaluation to storytelling. In the process of figuring out what information they need to track to manage their effectiveness, nonprofit staff realizes that the same information will fuel their own stories.

The Sacred Bundle¹
Some indigenous tribes in North America, especially nomadic tribes, preserved their culture by literally holding on to parts of their history. An elder would be trusted to keep a rock, feather, or other small totem representing an important moment from a tribe’s history. The elder would keep these items in a pouch—a sacred bundle. When the tribe gathered around the evening campfire, the trusted member would retrieve items from the sacred bundle, telling the story associated with each. Over time, everyone in the tribe came to know the same stories.

Dr. Jane Goodall, who has committed her life to improving the situation of endangered species such as chimpanzees and great apes, carries her own sacred bundle. In it she keeps a feather from a peregrine falcon, retrieved from a former mine in Ontario. The mining had left the land as barren as a moonscape. But, eventually, environmentalists reclaimed the land and habitats returned. Falcons are there again, and Goodall carries with her a feather from one of those falcons.

Another item in Goodall’s pouch is a child’s change purse. Once, on a TV show, Goodall featured a chimpanzee raised in an isolation room made of clear plastic. The animal was being used as part of a study examining what happens when chimps are deprived of touch. The chimpanzee was able to touch neither humans, nor its mother, father, or siblings; the animal was destroyed psychologically. A little girl watching the TV show sent Goodall the change purse with a few coins in it, asking her to buy a Snoopy doll for the chimp so it would have something to hug.

Goodall admits that, yes, sometimes she does start to lose hope, but then she pulls out her sacred bundle, and hope returns.

Evaluation and Sacred Bundles
There’s a line I picked up at an evaluation conference that nonprofits may want to use as funders challenge them to document results: “Measure what you value, and others will value what you measure.” For nonprofits, when it comes to evaluation, the challenge is figuring out what the organization values so dearly that it will track it in real time, so that staff can celebrate what’s working well and make adjustments when things get off track.

We waste a lot of resources when we measure things for the sake of compliance. When we focus, instead, on utilization-focused evaluation, the two critical questions are these: Who’s going to use the information? For what purposes? If nonprofit staff asks only those two questions about evaluation, they’ll do well for themselves.

Nonprofits often focus on the technical aspects of evaluation. What may be missing is the difficult process of reaching consensus on the story an organization wants to tell, that is, on what it values most. In the face of varied and conflicting requirements from funders, it is critical that nonprofits be explicit about their values: That is the only way they will align their outcomes with their values.

Three questions may help with this alignment. First, the nonprofit should ask, what story does it want to tell? Organizations should think about that moment down the road when a staff member will have to sit down at the computer and write a few lines about the work. Someone will pull open a drawer, take out a file, and hope that they have the right information.

That brings up the second question: What information does the organization need to tell the story? Organizations must figure out what information they must capture, day by day, so that one day it will be possible to pull that information from a sacred bundle.

The third question is, do organizations currently have in place mechanisms to track that information over time? If so, staff will put the information they value most into their sacred bundle. It will be there when they need it. If the mechanisms are not in place, staff will at least have identified their priority for evaluation.

¹ The story was passed on from Andy Goodman, whose resources on communications are available at www.agoodmanonline.com.

John Bare
Vice President for Strategic Planning and Evaluation
Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation
3223 Howell Mill Road, NW
Atlanta, GA 30327
Tel: 404-367-2100
Email: jbare@ambfo.com

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© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project