How do we know we are making a difference?

by Nancy Bacon, Director of Learning & Engagement

Washington Nonprofits launched a new evaluation form. Is it:

  • Excellent
  • Good
  • Fair
  • Poor?


Washington Nonprofits runs workshops all over the state and online. People turn to us to learn, and we spend a lot of time training others to think about how they make a difference.

But how do we know if we are making a difference? How do we stay on top of the latest trends to make sure that we are on top of our game when it comes to learning and program delivery.

This September, Washington Nonprofits launched a new workshop evaluation form. We have changed it before with little fanfare, and it contained the usual Likert scale and open-ended questions about what you liked and didn’t like. Our new evaluation form is different. We are sharing the story to offer an approach that might give you food for thought on how you know how well your programs are making a difference.

It all began during the Learning, Technology & Design virtual conference in March 2017. Learning expert Dr. Will Thalheimer, author of Smile Sheets, challenged us to think about whether we really knew anything about what people learned based on our current evaluations. He demonstrated how Likert and other numeric rating scales fall short because your “strongly agree” is different from mine. We don’t know anything about who is taking the survey to know if “I learned a lot” means anything. Converting words like “excellent” into 5 points and then taking the average across all participants yields non-sensical data like “You were on average a 4.2 speaker.” We at Washington Nonprofits are very committed to learning from our programs and modeling best practice. The time had come to change up our own evaluation.

What we like about our new evaluation:

  1. The first question offers us a baseline understanding of what participants come to the workshop knowing. We didn’t have any systematic way of knowing in the past.
  2. The second question, when paired with the first, shows us the change that resulted. If someone who knows a good amount comes and learns something, that is great. We wouldn’t expect them to learn a lot. If someone comes knowing nothing, we would be disappointed if they just learning something, not a lot.
  3. Ultimately we really care about action. Of course we want people to learn something, but we really want them to have the connections, tools, knowledge, and confidence to take action. Question 3 lets us know whether we got them to a place of action and what else we might need to think about after the workshop to get them there.
  4. Learning alone does not move people to action. Change happens when people apply learning when people hold them accountable and they have access to further tools and information in real time. We want to know both if people have access to these supports and if they perceive that they have this access. The survey both gathers information for us and serves as a final reminder that they are not alone.

As you think about your program evaluations, you might download Dr. Thalheimer’s free Smile-Sheet Diagnostic. Read more about implementing these ideas in a blog by Washington-based learning trainer Brian Washburn.

And let us know what you think about our new evaluation!

Building partnerships that benefit food banks and the communities they serve

Food banks work at the heart of our communities making sure that everyone has access to nutritious food. As they look after access to food, any set of partners is looking after their access to the kind of training that will sustain their work. In Fall 2016, Washington Nonprofits teamed up with Northwest Harvest, our region’s leading hunger relief agency to deliver board and grantwriting courses in Skagit, Clark, and Yakima Counties. Katie Howard, veteran grantwriter and trainer, joined the team to deliver her highly acclaimed “Accidental Grantwriter” workshop.


“Many of our partner organizations have limited budgets for travel and training so being able to provide a nationally recognized training right in their backyard is incredibly important not just for our partners but for the communities they serve,” explained Northwest Harvest Partner Programs Manager Jenn Tennent. “We could not have done this on our own.”


The partners took a community approach to the initiative because food banks succeed when they are connected with other nonprofits around them. In Yakima, for example, the Mattawa and Yakima SDA Food Banks learned alongside colleagues from The Adult Activity Center, the Union Gospel Mission, Sunrise Outreach Center, and the Chamber of Commerce. “Our goal over time is that connections become collaborations. We believe in the power of networked leadership and know that the first step comes in building trust,” noted Washington Nonprofits Director of Learning Nancy Bacon.


This pilot has proven successful so far. Participants mentioned they are no longer afraid of grantwriting and that they now actually think it is fun. They said they found the training invaluable, and the fact that our partnership could bring together a number of non-profit leaders in a community together in one room was a fantastic learning and networking opportunity and a big success. Trainer Katie Howard confirmed the positive energy developed through these meetings: “Each of the three trainings we’ve held so far has been packed with people hungry to learn. One recent participant shared, ‘I’ve really been doing this wrong. Now I have tools and ideas to improve.’”


Architecture of Action: Connecting Conferences with Change

Conferences fill ballrooms with people eager for inspiration, who then spill out into workshop rooms where they learn and connect with colleagues. That energy can be like a sugar rush – we reach a high state of excitement imagining how amazing things are going to be when we get home and reinvent. Or maybe that sugar rush-inducing excitement is really anxiety because we realize how far behind we seem to be.

Conference season is upon us. The Central Washington Conference for the Greater Good (Yakima) is on April 19, Washington State Nonprofit Conference (Bellevue) on May 17, and the Nonprofit Practices Institute Summit (Chelan) on May 22. Your attendance at conferences is vital to your success—time away from your desk connecting with colleagues gives you the knowledge, tools, and connections you need to imagine new solutions to the challenges in front of you.

Too often we make conference participation an isolated activity. We reluctantly fit it into our schedule and then march through the day with a conference bag hanging from our wrist until we get home exhausted and overwhelmed. We take pages of notes, which never get looked at again. Last year, I attended a thought-provoking conference with colleagues I admire. I misplaced my notebook on the way home, and when I tried to recall a single to-do item on my inspired list of tasks, I drew a complete blank. Sugar rush of excitement with no stickiness to turn what I learned into action.

The science of learning helps us create a scaffold ready to hold what we learn. It provides an architecture that allows us to turn learning into action. The three cornerstones of this structure are reflection, team, and time.



“We find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers.”

– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

We retain 58% of what we are told in 20 minutes, 33% after a day. We will forget most of what we learn at a conference by the time we get home for dinner.

Luckily there is an antidote: reflection. Reflection and action are inseparable. Each is needed to keep the other on track, and yet too often we rush to action because so much needs to get done. Without reflection, those ideas that you jot down in your notebook don’t have anything to which to stick. They are isolated stars not yet drawn into a constellation. Taking time for reflection before, during, and after a learning event forces your brain to create a hook to hang ideas on. It sets up a practice for you to retrieve what you know and imagine your practice in new ways.

Pre-conference question:

  • What is most on your mind right now?
  • Whether a challenge or an opportunity, what observable change in yourself, organization or community would you like to see within 3 months?

Write the answers to these questions down on the notebook that you plan to take to the conference.

Mid-way AND at the end of the conference day:

  • What do you find yourself continuing to think about?
  • What ideas have stuck with you?

Find a quiet place during the conference for at least 10 minutes.

Write down what you are thinking about.



“The small group is the unit of transformation.”
– Peter Block in Community: Creating a Culture of Belonging

We can’t create change alone. Change happens when we connect with others to put something new in place. A cornerstone of action is accountability, both in terms of our accountability to ourselves and to our community. Bringing a team to a conference allows you to get more out of the marketplace of ideas that organizers offer you. It holds you accountable for what you learned and what you say you are going to do next.

Create a roster of who should attend the conference. These people can be both within your organization and colleagues in your community. Driving a distance? Great conversations happen during carpools.



“It’s that linkage back to the workplace that I worry about the most.”
– Will Thalheimer, Ph.D

Focus, reflection, and team get us to the end of the conference day. What happens next? What further reflection will we do? What action steps will we organize with others?

Time is a precious commodity in our work. Taking more time after a conference to reflect and act might just be too much to ask. But what if the ROI of the day jumped considerable because you take more time to reflect and act? What if your choice is between a day away that doesn’t change anything and a day away that moved you closer to achieving your mission? None of us have time to waste, so let’s schedule post-conference time to make sure that we reflect and act in ways that move our mission forward.

PRIOR TO THE CONFERENCE, block out time for these events:

ONE HOUR within the week after the conference: Work on your own, read through your notes and make a to-do list of ideas or tasks that you would like to move forward. Look at websites mentioned by speakers.

ONE HOUR within the month after the conference: Share what you learned with your colleagues, board, or community. Talk about what you think about it and next steps. Need ideas on how to schedule this in?

  • Learning lunch
  • Designated time within a board meeting
  • Board potluck before a board meeting
  • Nonprofit network meeting


Join a local nonprofit network to continue the conversation. Don’t have one near you, contact us for ideas.

Your mission matters, and time and money to attend conferences are hard to come by. Taking time to connect the change you want to see with learning and resources will make the investments you make go so much farther. We look forward to seeing you at an upcoming conference!


DOWNLOAD the Architecture of Action: Conferences toolkit now.



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