What is Your Sacred Bundle? Evaluation and Storytelling

Native American dreamcatcher

I recently came across a powerful metaphor linking evaluation and storytelling. 

The source of the metaphor, grantmaker John Bare of the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, says that when he first meets nonprofit staff, he asks them what they — not their funders or donors — need to know about a program they’re implementing to learn which parts work and where modifications are needed.   

“In the process of figuring out what information they need to track to manage their effectiveness, nonprofit staff realize that the same information will fuel their own stories,” he wrote for the Harvard Family Research Project.

The “Sacred Bundle” of Program Assessment

According to Bare and his colleague Andy Goodman, certain indigenous tribes in North America preserved their culture by holding on to tangible pieces of their history. An elder would keep a small pouch with a feather, rock, piece of grain or other small totems that reflected important moments in the tribe’s past. When the tribe gathered, the elder would pull out the “sacred bundle” and tell the story associated with each item in it. Over time, everyone in the tribe learned and could recite the same stories.

Nonprofits benefit by storing in their “sacred bundles” nuggets of wisdom gained from the important program assessment data they gather. The key is to identify — from among the many possibilities — what is most significant.  

“Measure What You Value, and Others Will Value What You Measure”

Instead of compliance-focused monitoring, Bare advocates “utilization-focused evaluation” — collecting information the organization’s staff and leaders will USE. He advises: 

  • Be explicit with your values;
  • Decide what important story you want to tell;
  • Figure out which data you need in order to tell this story; and
  • Develop simple methods for collecting and learning from the data.

In my consulting work, I have seen this advice bear fruit. In one recent example, I assisted Sunday Friends, a small San Jose nonprofit, to reduce the volume of program data they monitor internally. Given the group’s limited resources, bold mission, diverse offerings and long list of desired outcomes, this was no small feat.

Sunday Friends runs over a dozen activities to reverse the generational cycle of poverty among very low-income, limited-English immigrant parents and their children. The group has attracted grants and gifts from numerous foundations and corporations — each tasking the group to achieve and report on the outcomes it cares about. As a result, the group was struggling to devise practical ways to gather, digest and share an extensive volume of data.

By accessing their deepest passion, the group’s leaders chose the three outcomes they valued the most. Based on these critical outcomes, we created a set of indicators and developed a new tool. The group is implementing protocols to ensure regular and efficient data collection, analysis and reporting, all based on the stories they want to share.

According to Sunday Friends founder and board chair Janis Baron, “Not only did clarifying [our] top three outcomes guide our program monitoring, but it came into play when we rewrote the mission. Now we know better what we value, what we strive to do, what we actually accomplish and in which direction we wish to grow. We also know which funders to pursue and which not to pursue to avoid mission creep.” 

The Benefits of Tying Evaluation to Values

When leaders and staff tap into their passion to collect outcomes data: 

  • Funders are more likely to find the information they collect meaningful;
  • Staff are more likely to stay on track with regular data collection and analysis;
  • Findings form the basis of the group’s “sacred stories”;
  • The group’s people can celebrate success and learn from mistakes; and
  • Lessons are used to improve program outcomes for beneficiaries.
Eleanor A. Smith

ELEANOR A. SMITH is Principal of Eleanor A. Smith & Associates, which she founded in 1997 to provide strategic consulting services to foundations and non-profit organizations. She is passionate about helping leaders envision the ultimate social impact they seek, clarifying how they intend to create such change, and devising user-friendly ways to achieve it. She teaches Program Evaluation, Strategic Planning and Program Development & Management at Bay Area universities and is trained and skilled in using a variety of strategic planning methods. Read more.

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