One way for a non-profit or government agency to evaluate its programs is to look at the outcome: how much the program reduced poverty, fed the hungry or cured the sick. Another is to look at the process. Process evaluation identifies the parts of a program that worked and the problems the program encountered. Even a program with a good outcome may have faulty processes.
The Program Environment
Process evaluation looks at the environment in which the program operated. Suppose the program's purpose is to teach literacy to immigrants. The evaluation looks at the makeup of the target population -- race, gender, age, culture and other factors. This can reveal whether the program might do better -- or worse -- in a different operating environment. If the program environment is unique or rare, then duplicating successful results may not be possible.
To evaluate a process, a non-profit needs metrics. How many immigrants attended literacy classes, how many homeless ate at the soup kitchen, how many seniors got free legal advice. Evaluations can also look at darker metrics, such as how many people dropped out. Two programs with identical disappointing outcomes can look different once you crunch the numbers. A drug-treatment program with a high drop-out rate may have different issues than a program that never had many people attend.
A program may look great on paper but not so great in the real world. One of the characteristics of process evaluations is that they measure the difference between the plan and the reality. That can include whether the program did better than expected, whether it met all the deadlines and due dates, and whether it exhausted the available resources. If unexpected problems came up, the project evaluation identifies and explains them, and what changes the non-profit made to cope with the problems.
Process evaluations often look at the program's internal operations. For example, it might ask non-profit staff and volunteers what they thought of the program and whether they gave it their full support. Other questions to evaluate are whether the program staff worked well together and whether everyone involved communicated effectively. It's also worth evaluating whether the non-profit's management team helped or hindered the project. If key players care about, say, who gets credit more than a successful outcome, that can cripple the project's performance.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.