Ethnography in Nonprofit Program Evaluation

Ask a nonprofit professional how her work is going, and you will likely be met with a passionate conversation about the difference she is making in the lives of her clients. Ask her how she is evaluating her program and the response will probably be less enthusiastic. You may hear about how many clients were served by the agency in a given time period or a dispassionate recounting of statistical information. Worse still, she may not have an answer at all!

While nonprofit program staff are usually the most intimately linked to their agency’s mission, they are often disconnected from the complex data collection and analysis involved in evaluating their programs. Smaller agencies may have no evaluation plan at all, or be so bogged down in their work that they are only able to collect the most basic data about their programs. What if I told you there was a research tool that could take the intimate knowledge and strong relationships built by program staff and turn them into actionable insights about program outcomes?

Ethnographic methods, a group of qualitative data collection tools, can greatly improve program evaluation models by providing deep insights about the experiences and needs of client populations. Ethnography is an applied research method, usually associated with anthropology, that relies on an emic or “insider” perspective to better understand the world. Through tools like in-depth interviews and participant observation—activities that nonprofit program staff engage in every day without even realizing it—ethnographic research yields what anthropologist Clifford Geertz described as “thick description,” providing context beyond what quantitative data alone can tell us.

This rich, culturally-informed data has a wide range of applicability in the nonprofit world. On the front end, it can inform program design and provide context for strategy by offering a better understanding of the complex social issues we are trying to solve. On the back end, it can provide a deeper look at the impact our programs have on the clients we serve. As a bonus, the stories collected through qualitative methodologies can also be invaluable when talking to funders, volunteers, donors, and anyone else who supports your mission.

For guidance on how to use ethnography to evaluate and improve your agency’s programs, shoot us an email! Our staff ethnographers can work with your team to create a mixed-method evaluation plan for your organization.