What is a Systems Evaluation and Why is it Important in the Non-Profit Sector?


Increasingly, we are told we need to design and evaluate things in systems. However, I want to take a step back this week and chat about what a system actually is and why it is important in the nonprofit context.

Understanding Systems Evaluation

Systems evaluations are particularly relevant in the nonprofit sector. Like putting on a pair of wide-angle lenses to view the world, systems evaluations consider the many factors that influence and are influenced by any given program or project.

So, what exactly is systems evaluation? Systems evaluation emerges from the world of systems thinking. Systems Thinking is not a new approach. I remember learning about systems in graduate school nearly 20 years ago.

Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving that views complex problems as parts of an overall system, rather than addressing only their individual components. It emphasizes the interconnections between the system’s parts and how they influence one another over time.

Key principles of systems thinking include:

  • Interconnectedness: Understanding that changes in one part of the system can affect other parts.
  • Holism: Looking at problems as a part of an overall system, rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes, or events.
  • Feedback Loops: Recognizing that systems often have reinforcing or balancing feedback loops that control their behavior.
  • Causality: Discerning the relationships between different elements, which can be complex and non-linear.
  • Emergence: Acknowledging that systems can have properties and behaviors that emerge from the interactions of their parts that would not be predicted by the behavior of the parts alone.
  • Systems Mapping: Using tools like causal loop diagrams to visualize systems and their interactions.

Systems thinking is used in various fields, including ecology, engineering, management, and education, to create sustainable solutions to complex problems.

This means a Change to the Way We Do Things in the Non-Profit Sector


Traditionally, evaluations in the nonprofit sector have often been like examining something in a glass tube – isolated, controlled, and somewhat disconnected from the broader context. Systems evaluation, on the other hand, acknowledges that programs don’t exist independently. They are part of a larger, often complex system that includes social, political, legal, technological, and economic factors.

Think of a program like a tree in a forest. Just as a tree’s health is influenced by the soil it’s in, the weather patterns, and the other flora and fauna around it, a program is influenced by the larger system which it is a part of. This approach helps us understand the broader impacts and implications of a program.

The Importance of Systems Evaluation

Why is this important? Because people, the primary beneficiaries of most nonprofit programs, are the result of systems. We’re not born in a test tube, nor do we exist in one. Our lives are shaped by a multitude of intersecting systems. For instance, a program aimed at helping at-risk groups must consider more than just the immediate needs of its participants. It needs to look at the broader societal, economic, and political factors that impact these groups.

This approach becomes even more crucial when dealing with vulnerable or marginalized populations. Their lives are often influenced by a complex web of interconnected systems, and failing to consider these can lead to incomplete or ineffective interventions.

​​Looking Beyond The Obvious

Systems evaluation encourages us to look beyond the obvious. It’s not just about evaluating the direct outcomes of a program, but understanding how these outcomes co-exist and interact with broader systems. This means considering the unintended consequences, the indirect impacts, and the long-term effects of a program.

For example, let’s talk about a recent grantor’s approach to evaluating an entrepreneurship program. They wanted to measure success by the number of businesses created and the corresponding new jobs. However, this perspective misses key elements in the current economic landscape. Rising wage costs often mean that new entrepreneurs are less likely to hire staff. Instead, they might rely on contractors or other cost-effective means to run their businesses. A systems evaluation approach would recognize this and adjust the success metrics accordingly, rather than sticking to a narrow view.

Final Thoughts

In essence, systems evaluation is about broadening our perspective. It’s about understanding that programs exist within a wider context and that their success and impact are influenced by a range of external factors. This approach helps nonprofits not only to design and implement more effective programs but also to communicate their impact more accurately and comprehensively. In a world where the issues we face are increasingly complex and interconnected, systems evaluation is not just useful; it’s essential for any organization looking to make a meaningful difference.

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