A Growing Evaluation Center Helps Non-Profits Improve and Thrive | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
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A Growing Evaluation Center Helps Non-Profits Improve and Thrive

Faculty; Research

As the Fathers & Families Support Center (FFSC) approached its 10th year working to strengthen St. Louis families, its leaders were confident it was achieving its aims through its program to improve father-child well-being. But to make sure, and to demonstrate their success to potential funders, it needed the expertise of a fresh set of eyes.

Enter the Brown School’s Evaluation Center. The Center developed and executed an evaluation plan for FFSC using tools that included periodic surveys of participating fathers, focus groups, and detailed data analysis. When their work was finished, not only had they shown the program’s success, but also found ways to improve its efficiency and help more dads in the process.

“Working with the Evaluation Center was a very good experience,” said Cheri D. Tillis, CEO of the Fathers & Families Support Center (FFSC). “We have the staff that can administer various tools, but we don’t have the expertise to produce quantitative analysis. We learned so much from the Evaluation Center’s report – it was amazing.”

Nikole Lobb Dougherty, the newly named Director of the Evaluation Center, said its work for the FFSC is a good example of the Center’s aim of accomplishing client-driven evaluation to help organizations within and outside of Washington University determine whether their organizational goals are being met. Now in its seventh year, the Center is expanding and looking ahead. It recently released its first-ever Accomplishments & Impact Report highlighting its accomplishments, including doubling its staff size and securing over $8 million in grants and contracts to advance the work of partner organizations and strengthen the evaluation capacity of partners and others in the field.

“We’re now moving into the intersection of strategy development and evaluation,” she said. “We’re consulting with partners on strategic, policy development so evaluation isn’t an afterthought, but on the front end to build evaluation capacity from the beginning.”

Lobb Dougherty was formerly the associate director of the Center and was named recently to replace Nancy Mueller, who has been appointed associate provost for institutional effectiveness at Washington University.

“We are incredibly gratified that Nikole will provide a seamless transition for the Evaluation Center, whose growth over the last five years has been extraordinary,” said Gary Parker, the Associate Dean for External Affairs. “Nancy and Nikole have been a tremendous source of leadership to fulfill the Brown School’s commitment to making an impact in our community by advancing evidence-based programs to improve the lives of people at the grass-roots level.”

Lobb Dougherty said the Center’s aim is to build the ability of organizations to do their own evaluation. She noted that the Center helped launch post-master’s certificate programs in program evaluation and data visualization to do just that with plans to expand to other related topics. “We want to foster a culture of learning and increase the capacity of others,” she said. “It’s important that those individuals who are most impacted have a voice at the table.”

The Center has also played a key role in the Brown School’s strategic plan, Equity 2030. “We’re really focused on insuring that we are implementing equitable evaluation strategies and approaches,” said Hannah Allee, the Center’s assistant director of evaluation services.

The Evaluation Center has worked with a diverse and growing group of partners over the years, including the Cigna Foundation, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and United Way of Greater St. Louis. The Fathers & Families Support Center is a powerful example of the Evaluation Center’s record for impact.

Before the Evaluation Center’s analysis, all fathers who signed up for the FFSC’s program entered a 240-hour, six-week class that included elements such as parenting and employment placement services. Many of the dads didn’t complete the course. After brainstorming with the Evaluation Center, they set up an alternative, four-week program. Interviews, focus groups and analyses of outcomes for fathers in both groups revealed that positive results – such as well-being, more quality parenting time, improved family interactions and fathers’ financial contributions to the family – were the same for both groups.

“The Evaluation Center’s analysis showed us we could accomplish this in a four-week time frame,” Tillis said. “More people we serve are now making it to the finish line, and we have lower attrition rates.”

Courtney King, MPH/MSW ’16, was a research assistant for the Center’s FFSC impact evaluation project and became its project coordinator in 2018. “I was interested in research and evaluation and using data to help tell the story, problem solve and think through things differently,” she said. “This project was special to me because it focused on fathers. And it gave me more insight into what support fathers need.”

Facilitating the focus groups with the fathers was enlightening, she said. “The one thing that stood out to me was that a key component was financial well-being  fathers having the training and skills for employment and connecting them to jobs. We know that if you have financial well-being, you can care for yourself and your family. That can influence other outcomes like parenting and psychological well-being. From our study, we learned there were no differences between the longer and shorter programs. Their well-being improved regardless,” she said.

King added that her experience gave her confidence in her career choice. “From being part of this project, I had confirmation I was in the right field of work,” she said.

One of the students who worked on the FFSC project was Courtney Cantwell, MSW ’19 . Her role was in data collection, calling fathers in the program to complete a survey. “It was a really interesting experience,” she said. “It was sometimes challenging to get ahold of these dads. I asked them about their health and well-being, and how that affected their parenting.”

The experience led to her working on a variety of projects at the Center “I love getting to meet all of our partners and find out what they’re doing in the community. I am so grateful I’m now getting the chance to continue my learning outside the classroom, which is so important to my career trajectory. I just really like what I’m doing. This is fostering my love for data, information and how to communicate it to all types of audiences.”

“It’s a great opportunity to bridge the gap of data and real-world experience and the impact it can have on the community.”

Heather Jacobsen, evaluation and communications manager, said student involvement has been key to the Center’s work. “The Center has consistently been a site of practicum students,” Jacobsen said. Allee added that the Center’s work helps to fulfill the Brown School’s commitment to the community by being a source of expertise for organizations that may not know where to turn. “When you’re in a non-profit, you don’t know who to go to for support but you know our school wants to be a resource to the community. It’s helpful to have a place to go.”

Tillis, the Director of Fathers & Families Support Center, agreed. She said staff and leadership have shared their Evaluation Center experience, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in technical-assistance sessions with new projects and social-service providers across the U.S. to reinforce the value of evaluation. “It’s dispelled some fears practitioners have about going into evaluation and put people at ease,” she said. “No one wants to be told they have an ugly baby. But you’re going to learn things about your project that you can tweak and change. Practitioners have to be open to change because it can lead to improvements.”

“You may think you have a great project, but you have to show it, and the Evaluation Center is a great third party saying it, not just you.”