Evaluation: An Invisible Giant

When I am asked what I do for a living, I expect that it might take a little explaining.  Most people are unaware of program evaluation, including many who work for organizations that implement programs.

My short answer is that I help clients—nonprofit organizations, foundations, corporations, museums, and schools—determine how effective they are and how they can be more effective.   Often this leads to more questions and longer conversations that I quite enjoy, yet I am left wondering why evaluation is so little known given the size of the field.

How big is the field of evaluation?  Ironically, that is not a statistic that anyone tracks.  To get a handle on it, consider the nonprofit sector, which is closely associated with programs intended to further a social mission.

According to the Urban Institute, there were roughly 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States in 2011, up by 25% over the preceding 10 years.  In 2010, nonprofit organizations produced products and services worth roughly $779 billion, which is 5.4 percent of GDP.  As a point of comparison that is more than the US spends on its military, which accounts for only 4.7% of GDP.

Nonprofits, however, are not the only organizations that implement programs.  Universities, public school systems, government agencies, hospitals, and a growing number of for-profit companies do so as well.  If we take into account all organizations that implement programs—what Paul Light calls social benefit organizations—it would easily double or triple our prior estimate based on nonprofit organizations alone.  That means that goods and services produced by the social benefit sector could be on par with those of healthcare—a whopping 16% of GDP.

Who figures out whether that whopping slice of GDP is benefiting society?  Who helps design the programs represented by that slice?  Who works to build the capacity of social benefit organizations to achieve their missions?  Countless evaluators.  Yet, program evaluation remains hidden from public view, an invisible giant unnoticed by most.  Isn’t it time that changed?


Filed under Evaluation, Program Evaluation

6 responses to “Evaluation: An Invisible Giant

  1. Salaam John,

    I see an invisible giant assumption in your debate that may be unknown for you!
    Why you compeer or compare nonprofit organizations produced products and services worth roughly $779 billion, which is 5.4 percent of GDP with US spends on its military, which accounts for only 4.7% of GDP?
    Are you thinking military function is more important than other business? Yes /no! Why?

    • My purpose was to illustrate that the social benefit sector in the US is large. To gauge how large, I compared the size of the nonprofit sector (in economic terms) to military spending, which many consider to be quite high. I was not making a statement about the social value of the military, only its relative size in economic terms.

      • You wrote: US spends on its military, which accounts for only 4.7% of GDP

        What is the function of ONLY in this statement?

      • I used the word “only” to reinforce that fact that, as a percentage of GDP, the nonprofit sector is larger than the military. I believe that many Americans would find that surprising.

  2. Anne W

    I constantly have difficulty with my “elevator spiel” trying to explain what I do as an evaluator. I like your wording above about determining if initiatives are effective and how they can be more effective. I agree that the nature of social benefit organizations is probably the crux of the confusion – the average person is more familiar with the private sector where value for a product is usually reflected in sales and profit margins. When you add in the cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness dynamic for something that is non-profit based, people still focus on “how much did it cost?” (at least, this is a challenge we are facing with recent government cuts to very effective, yet costly, social programs).

    I’d be very interested in a cost-benefit analysis of social sector spending vs. military spending in terms of benefits to the average citizen i.e., how the 5.4% and 4.7% would change if we calculated other benefits in relation to percentage of GDP. Although, that analysis is probably not within the realm of measurability…

    When I try to explain what I do, the reply that I dread the most is, “oh, so you send out surveys”.

  3. Anne W

    …as an afterthought, I wonder if there is a place for professional evaluators as partners in the private sector for companies that want to assess their Triple Bottom Line?

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