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Evaluation Strategies Help Family Support Programs

February 4, 2013
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We were able to demonstrate to funders that this was a need because we had data to support it.

Don Cohon

Institute for the Study of Community-Based Services

Since its start in 1994, the Mutual Assistance Network of Del Paso Heights (MAN) in Sacramento has used data to make its case to funders. Now, it’s grown from a community gardening project to a $2.6 million agency.

“It’s hard to argue with success,” says MAN’s Executive Director Richard Dana. “I can’t tell you how valuable it is to walk into a room and say: ‘Five years ago, the infant low-birth-weight rate of Del Paso Heights was five times higher than the whole county. Now it’s even with the county’s.’ We can really show an impact.”

As state and county budgets shrink and private foundations suffer stock market losses, family support programs need to show that they can reach families more effectively or save money.

When funds are tight, being able to use data to prove that your program makes a difference is “everything,” says Sid Gardner, president of Children and Family Futures, an Irvine-based nonprofit that provides technical assistance to family resource centers (FRC).

For many FRCs, developing evaluation strategies on top of meeting community needs can be daunting. However, here are some tips from the field:

Doing the numbers

To survive in tough times, FRCs need to get more sophisticated about what information they gather and how to use the results to improve programs and raise funds, according to Gardner.

The first question FRCs should ask themselves is: What are we best at improving?

“Most will realize that their own information systems are not sufficient to answer the question,” Gardner says.

Tracking community information

Early on, MAN received support from foundations to hire a consultant to gather “baseline” data on the community, “to determine whether our programs were truly meeting the needs of the community,” Dana says.

For example, high school records showed that most behavior problems were occurring among girls, while MAN’s programs were mostly targeting boys.

“We adjusted our program to serve more girls,” Dana says.

Most of the information is collected by government agencies:

  • School districts keep track of students’ behavior trends, attendance, academic achievement, special education needs and eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch.
  • U.S. Census tracks race and ethnicity, employment, income level and more.
  • Local police departments usually keep crime rates by zip code.
  • County human services agencies track how many families access social services.
  • Hospitals track birth rates, low-birth-weight babies and teen pregnancy.

Some data can be accessed via the Internet, but often FRCs have to negotiate to get the information they need.

“We were running our youth programs for three years before the school began to work with us,” Dana recalls. “It took a long-term approach to get our program allowed inside the [school data] system.”

The key was trust: “We told them: ‘We’re here to support you, not compete with you,’” Dana says.

Tracking program information

Intake questions are critical, Gardner says. He challenges FRCs to think of three questions they could add “that would help explain how you serve the community.” Age of children can be important — “if you know how many families have kids in preschool, you are in a better position to talk to First 5,” Gardner says.

Universities can help: “If you have computers, ask the local university for help,” says Iris Alfaro, research associate at Children and Family Futures. Graduate students hungry for evaluation experience might volunteer to create a database and input information.

Evaluation specialists are often more efficient than FRC staff, who have to learn as they go, Dana says. Often, the costs can be built into a contract or grant agreement.

Follow up with families three to six months after they leave the program. Even if you can only interview a small sample, it can make a big difference, says Don Cohon of the Institute for the Study of Community-Based Services, which has evaluated the San Francisco-based Edgewood Center’s Kinship Support Network.

Edgewood’s first evaluation was based on 24 caregivers, but it helped leverage two major foundation grants.

“We were able to demonstrate to funders that this was a need because we had data to support it,” Cohon says.

Originally written by Melia Franklin.