How to Evaluate Community Development Program Impact
It’s important to assess the impact of your community development program. Every community development organization wants to make change. We care about our neighbors and want to make things better, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing the work! Usually, nonprofits and ministries have programs to tackle issues of inequity. These programs can take a lot of emotional and financial resources (we’ve been there). Essentially, you know you’re working hard on your program and doing a lot of activity. But figuring out if you’re program is making an impact can be a little trickier.
Too often, we’ve heard people say that the real results of nonprofit work can’t be measured. This is certainly true sometimes. But without understanding the health of your programs, it can be difficult to know what’s working. Even worse, you might end up in a position where your programs aren’t aligned with the purpose of your organization. Oops!
It can happen to any of us. As a remedy, our team created the SPIRE Assessment. Based on the 5 principles of Holistic Neighborhood Development, you can use it to figure out if your community development programs are having an impact.
Let’s take a look at it together! Here are the 5 areas to look at that will tell you if your programming is healthy.
#1 Solutions Focus
Great Community Development work focuses on solving inequity, not just treating symptoms. In your programs, a solutions-focus means that the program has tangible, measurable outcomes that tie directly to the purpose of the program. Even more – everyone on the program team should know what those targets are and understand how to get them!
To make sure solutions are happening, healthy programs will have clear processes for tracking those impact metrics. Of course, data is not super helpful without analysis. Healthy programs will have rhythms for evaluating their impact metrics, trends, and know-how to adjust to get back on track. This is a great way to start evaluating the program’s impact in your day-to-day community development work.
#2 Community Participation
Programs are usually most effective when they’re aware and focused on a place. And places have people! One way to spot a high-impact program is when it attracts and serves the neighborhood. The best programs will have local residents engaging as active and equal partners. Over time, a great program will usually end up with current or former program participants in roles of leadership and authority.
Of course, this participation takes some intentionality. Take a moment and ask yourself: do you have a set process for soliciting input from neighbors and program participants? If you don’t, it could mean that your work is disconnected or poorly understood. Once you have a way to receive neighborhood feedback, it’s absolutely crucial to respond and adjust accordingly. Doing so builds trust with the community, which will only intensify your positive impact over time.
#3 Neighborhood Integration
It’s hard to make change without a deep understanding of what factors drive the current reality. Nonprofit programs should stem from a comprehensive look at the local systems and how they shape neighbors’ lives. Development programs will make an impact when they focus on changing the systems that create inequality.
This all takes time, usually decades. To last long enough to have an impact, every holistic organization needs robust partnerships with other local institutions. If your program is operating alone, you may want to consider making it a priority to build local partnerships. This is a great, relatively quick way to increase all programs’ impact.
#4 Authentic Relationships
Relationships are core to the impact of community development programs. Take a moment and assess your relationships in the place where you’re working. Do you live nearby? Has your staff received training on how to meaningfully communicate with people and partners from different backgrounds? These questions may reveal opportunities to connect more deeply with residents.
Great programs make space for great relationships. It’s a surefire way to avoid devolving into transactional charity. High-impact neighborhood development should enable authentic, mutual relationships between program staff and participants. Everyone should be walking away from the program strengthened and changed.
#5 Program Execution
A scary phrase for a simple concept: how the mechanics of the program are going. It’s hard to imagine a disorganized team with no resources or procedures having a lot of impact. Unfortunately, nonprofits limp along like this more than you might think.
To figure out if your community development programming is having an impact, be sure to stop and notice how it feels like it’s going internally. Check if your team has confidence in its leaders, its resources, and in each other. High-impact programs need a team who understands the mission, loves it, and wants to do it. Once you have that, the best programs will have systems that support competent staff and then get out of their way!
Evaluating Program Impact Summary
Evaluating these 5 areas will give you a good overall sense of how much impact your community development program has right now. As with any person or initiative, growth is topographical. We hope you’ve noticed some strengths to what you’re doing right now, and potentially seen a couple of opportunity areas.
Remember, it’s impossible to navigate to the future you want if you don’t know where you are now. We hope this article has given you a guide for where to look when you’re evaluating impact.
To go even deeper, we want to invite you to take our course all about The Spire Assessment. You can click here to access it!