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?