Foundational Tools for Evidence Building

By Matt Hillard
January 3, 2024

The landscape of generating and using evidence in the nonprofit sector is shifting rapidly, with the introduction of increasingly advanced analytics and tools like artificial intelligence. At the same time, there has been a shift in the way evidence is defined and understood, broadening beyond previously held beliefs of “what counts” as evidence. Included in this expanded definition is greater value placed on evidence that is actionable and equitable: built with the participation of community stakeholders and used to inform decision-making, shape policies, and improve programs. 

It is within this context that we have the privilege to support nonprofits, education agencies, and foundations as they navigate this constantly shifting environment. In our work with these partners, we hear common challenges and questions, such as: 

  • “I need an evaluation.” This might be because it is a requirement, or it has been a longtime goal of the organization to develop programmatic proof points.
  • “I have a lot of data. What do I do with it?” The organization may be exploring some sophisticated analytics, but doesn’t know where to start.
  • “I’ve been hearing a lot about AI, and my board has been encouraging me to think about how we might apply it to our work.” Many organizations are eager to engage with new tools that can increase efficiency but are unsure where to start and wary of AI’s potential to replicate bias.

To address these challenges and engage with these insights, we have found power in returning to a core set of questions: What do you want to learn? What are the outcomes that you seek? How does evidence support your strategy? 

Each of the questions above can be addressed through a foundational set of evidence-building activities: theory of change, learning agenda, and a Strategic Evidence Plan (SEP)

Taking time to engage in these foundational activities allows organizations to move more quickly when the time is right. For example, by establishing an organization-wide theory of change, organizations make their assumptions explicit and identify their desired outcomes from which more advanced evidence-building activities stem. Additionally, by naming and developing a plan to answer a prioritized set of questions as part of a learning agenda, organizations are able to intentionally approach their evidence-building initiatives with greater strategic focus. Finally, by developing a SEP, organizations organize their evidence-building activities around a shared vision and name the steps that it takes to achieve that vision. 

Theory of Change — People often use the terms theory of change (ToC) and logic model interchangeably. A logic model is a strategic tool that identifies and visualizes program components, while a ToC adds greater depth by articulating the how and why, or the specific causal mechanisms through which a program is likely to generate the desired outcomes. Organizations need a ToC, not for grant applications, not for programming evaluation, but to guide strategy and understand what works (and doesn’t). The ToC is not new; it has been best practice for a long time. What’s new is how your organization recognizes it, and leverages the tool for the purpose of establishing a shared language for what success looks like for those that you serve and how you believe your program contributes to that success.  

How an organization can use this tool: The leadership of a startup nonprofit working on career opportunities for people impacted by the justice system needed to define key aspects of its intended impact, mission, and vision in order to guide initial organization design. Project Evident worked with the organization, grounding its efforts in a basic logic model to focus strategy around what work to prioritize. Leadership and staff are now aligned in shared strategy and can make decisions about activities based on greatest opportunity for impact:

Learning Agenda — The learning agenda is a structured set of prioritized research questions and activities that support systematic learning and evidence generation. When tied to clear measurement, a learning agenda can guide research, evaluation, and data analysis to inform decision-making, improve programs and interventions, and achieve desired outcomes. 

How an organization can use this tool: Project Evident guided a student-focused Midwestern nonprofit through the development of a learning agenda that aligned with their theory of change, measurement framework, and evidence-building foundation. In this case, the learning agenda asks questions specific to evaluation (e.g., What is the longitudinal impact of our program for students?), stakeholder feedback (e.g., What outcomes matter most to students and families?), and program design (e.g., What is the ideal design of the roles held by frontline staff?). Their learning agenda allows them to focus their data collection and evidence-building on the questions most critical to them. 

Strategic Evidence Plan (SEP) — The Strategic Evidence Plan is a unique roadmap for continuous evidence building and program improvement, offering detailed guidance and concrete recommendations for understanding what kind of evidence will best support your organizational strategy, growth, and sustainability over time. At Project Evident, the SEP process consists of identifying an organization’s vision and goals, reviewing its specific context and evaluative capacity, and developing a roadmap that identifies investments and actions needed to achieve goals. 

How an organization can use this tool: A large regional housing provider sought an evaluation partner to help them chart a strategy – and implementation plan – to better manage outcomes and prepare for a revamp of their data systems. We applied the SEP process to strategically consider all the systems, processes, and practices that help the organization better use data to make decisions and to improve outcomes for residents.

Over the past 6 years, we’ve helped support the fundamentals and/or develop Strategic Evidence Plans for more than 60 organizations, ranging from scrappy two-person organizations to established national organizations.

Our experience has shown us that foundational tools like the theory of change, learning agenda, and Strategic Evidence Plans are essential for organizations to understand the impact of their work and prioritize program investments to improve outcomes or to scale activities. By focusing on foundational evidence-building activities, organizations are better-equipped to make data-informed decisions, focus their strategies, and navigate the evolving world of evidence-building – making evidence more intentional and actionable.