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The importance of evaluation
27 September 2005
by Mary V. Merrill

The evaluation of volunteer experiences provides important feedback for administrators, managers of volunteers and individual volunteers about volunteer programmes and processes. A thorough evaluation helps both the organization and the individual volunteer identify strengths and weaknesses in their respective contributions, provides for greater accountability of organizational resources and improves the overall morale of all involved. 

Managers of volunteers are frequently asked to demonstrate the value of their programme.  Administrators, boards, and funders may view volunteer programme as cost centres (they cost money to operate effectively, and do not directly raise revenues for the organization) that compete for limited resources (money) within the organization and the community. Outcome evaluation has become a valuable tool for demonstrating programme quality and effectiveness (Fisher and Cole, 1993).

Evaluation components of volunteer programmes

Managers of volunteers should consider evaluating three components: the performance of the individual volunteer, the efficiency of the programme, and the effectiveness of the volunteer programme.

An evaluation of the contributions of a volunteer should involve opportunities for self-evaluation by the individual volunteer as well as external evaluation by appropriate paid staff and programme managers. The evaluation should be based on the expectation detailed in the volunteer job description. The evaluation should look at whether the goals of the volunteer position have been met as well as the volunteer’s working relationship with paid staff, other volunteers, clients and perhaps the community. The volunteer and his/her supervisor both should comment about the volunteer’s performance. As with all performance evaluations, these should be conducted consistently, preferably on an annual basis. Evaluations are a part of a risk management process, becoming part of the volunteer’s permanent file, with recommendations for training, promotion, additional assignments, etc. If the volunteer’s performance is lacking in certain areas there should be a plan for improvement, including a timeline for follow-up.

A study of efficiency examines the use of resources and the day-to-day operation of the programme. An evolution of a volunteer programme includes an examination of the tasks volunteers perform, their satisfaction with the programme, their retention, and the effectiveness of paid staff’s participation and support.  “A process evaluation also examines the coordination and administration of a programme, the adequacy of supervision, the effectiveness of training, the level of staff and budgetary support available and performance expectation. It reviews lines of communication and accountability and identifies potential sources of internal conflict.” (Fisher & Cole, 1992, p. 140)

Programme effectiveness includes two components: results (outputs) and outcomes.  “Evaluation of results looks at the direct outputs of a programme, the products and services that a programme provides.”  (Fisher & Cole, 1993, p. 140)  This type of evaluation usually includes the numbers of clients served, programmes conducted, and services provided. This evaluation looks at the external effectiveness of the programme – how the programme met its goals and objectives.  

Volunteer managers may also wish to document the numbers of volunteers recruited, trained, placed, as well as the hours contributed. This information looks more at internal effectiveness in the management of the volunteer programme. By gathering information from both volunteers and paid staff, and perhaps clients, a more accurate evaluation of the total volunteer experience may be achieved. Information about the time commitment involved, and suggestions for improving and expanding the programme should be collected. Exit interviews conducted when volunteers leave or discontinue their volunteer service are excellent ways to gather information from volunteers.

 “Impact evaluation measures the broad consequences of a programme, such as how the lives of clients have improved or how the health of the community has changed or how the organization has been helped in achieving its mission. Impact evaluation usually examines the degree to which the overall needs a programme was designed to address have in fact been alleviated… For example, a community organization may assess the impact of a block-watch programme by comparing the number of crimes reported in the programme area this year with the number last year.” (Fisher & Cole, 1993, p. 141) 

The measure of success for the programme would be based on the goals and measurable objectives established by the programme, such as a 10% decrease in the numbers of reported crimes.  Measurable objectives, or measures of success must be established before the programme begins. They become the yardstick for measuring progress or success. 

Fisher and Cole stress that “because impact evaluation looks at the consequences of a volunteer programme in the broadest and most inclusive form, it is also the most challenging method of evaluation to conduct. . . It is difficult to ascertain the degree to which change occurs as a result of the programme and the degree to which it occurs as a result of other factors.  Some programmes result in unanticipated impacts; other affect unintended populations. . . No evaluation is complete if it does not assess the benefits provided to the larger population and demonstrate the broad consequences of the programme.”

Fisher, J. & Cole, K. (1993).  Leadership and Management of Volunteer Programs.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.