Formative evaluation focuses on program improvement. If you like to cook, you can think of the difference between formative and outcome evaluation this way. Formative evaluation is when the chef tastes the soup; outcome evaluation is when the diner assess that first mouthful.
Although formative evaluation is often integrated into a program’s management operations, it can also take place when a program pauses to assess its accomplishments midstream. Programs that do not operate year round– those tied to the school calendar for example– sometimes have built in breaks during which managers and other stakeholders can take time out to examine and document what has worked and what could be improved. For a brief case study, click here.
We believe that most not-for-profit organizations will benefit from a well designed formative evaluation. Staff, participants and funders like to see that their investments of effort, trust, hope and dollars are paying off in real time and not just at a program’s conclusion.
The key to a successful formative evaluation is a thorough understanding of the key levers that bring about program outcomes. Going back to our culinary example, it’s about understanding the relative importance of the broth, the cream and the cooking time in making the recipe turn out right. Sure, they’re all important, but some are more critical than others and some are easier to adjust. We believe that creating usable knowledge requires an understanding of what matters most.