What is Evaluation?

Program evaluation is an applied research process that examines the effects and effectiveness of programs and initiatives. Michael Quinn Patton notes that, “Program evaluation is the systematic collection of information about the activities, characteristics, and outcomes of programs in order to make judgements about the program, to improve program effectiveness, and/or to inform decisions about future programming.

Program evaluation can be used to look at:

  • the process of program implementation,
  • the intended and unintended results/effects produced by programs,
  • the long-term impacts of interventions.

Program evaluation employs a variety of social science methodologies–from large-scale surveys and in-depth individual interviews, to focus groups and review of program records. Although program evaluation is research-based, unlike purely academic research, it is designed to produce actionable and immediately useful information for program designers, managers, funders, stakeholders, and policymakers. (See our previous article “What’s the Difference? Evaluation vs. Research”

Why Evaluate?

Program evaluation is a way to judge the effectiveness of a program. It can also provide valuable information to ensure that the program is maximally capable of achieving its intended results. Some of the most common reasons for conducting program evaluation are to:

  • monitor the progress of a program’s implementation and provide feedback to stakeholders about various ways to increase the positive effects of the program
  • improve program design and efficacy
  • measure the outcomes, or effects, produced by a program, in order to determine if the program has achieved success and improved the lives of those it is intended to serve or affect
  • provide objective evidence of a program’s achievements to current and/or future funders and policy makers
  • elucidate important lessons and contribute to public knowledge

There are numerous reasons why a program manager or an organizational leader might choose to conduct an evaluation. Program evaluation is a way to understand how a program or initiative is doing. Learning about a program’s effectiveness in a timely way, especially learning about a program’s achievements and challenges, can be a valuable endeavor for those who are responsible for programs’ successes. Evaluation is not simply a way to “judge” a program, but a way to learn about and strengthen a program. Moreover, evaluation can help to strengthen not just a particular program, but the organization that hosts the program. (See “Strengthening Program AND Organizational Effectiveness”)


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