A User-Friendly Approach to Program Evaluation and Effective Community Interventions for Families at Risk of Homelessness

Article excerpt

Practitioners who administer social programs seek usable knowledge from academic researchers that encompasses the critical issues of the times and the problem of hands-on management (Schuman & Abramson, 2000). Practitioners in small nonprofit organizations in particular face a multitude of issues in the implementation of public sector grants and contracts that affect program management and evaluation. Particularly hard hit are prevention programs in local community-based nonprofit organizations that serve very low-income children and families (Weil, 2000).

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how a Family Center's program evaluation--an example of coproduction that used logic modeling as an analytic framework--can help social work practitioners and local community workers evaluate their own programs. A logic model is a one-page "graphic representation of a program that describes the program's essential components and expected accomplishments and conveys the logical relationship between these components and their outcomes" (Conrad, Randolph, Kirby, & Bebout, 1999, p. 18).

As Wolch (1999) contended: "The real burden is on nonprofit agencies suddenly faced with rising demands for services, reduced public funding, and mandates to monitor clients and enforce sanctions including benefit terminations and evictions, on behalf of their partner the state" (p. 28). In the face of these developments, to what extent are program managers in community-based nonprofits capable of responding to local needs? This is a timely question for the evaluation of social work practice. First, at the turn of the 20th century, small community-based nonprofit organizations such as settlement houses historically served poor neighborhoods as mediating institutions to help immigrant newcomers move out of poverty (Jansson, 1994). In the new millennium, immigrant issues are controversial social policy concerns. Today, with privatization generating role shifts of government as funder and nonprofit as provider, we need to know more about how services are configured in low-income neighborhoods and how targeted beneficiaries use such services.

Second, social workers are in positions of responsibility for the development, administration, and evaluation of program initiatives that implement new federal and state social policies intended to reform public welfare, child welfare, and public housing (Mulroy & Lauber, 1999). Many of these programs are small and focus on the coordination of community-based services intended to increase resident and community empowerment. The philanthropic community, also invested in strengthening families and communities, encourages local projects to be comprehensive community initiatives that use collaborations and partnerships to achieve community-building goals (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1997; Leventhal, Brooks-Gunn, & Kamerman, 1997; O'Connor, 1995).

Third, public and philanthropic funders expect program managers to perform these functions in a context of heightened accountability for program efficiency and effectiveness (Forbes, 1998; Schalock, 2001). An important contextual factor is that in the era of privatization most program evaluations have a political context; the research questions may come from federal, state, or local government funding agencies, and findings are intended to provide feedback to legislators to inform their future resource allocation decisions (Bickman & Rog, 1998; Yegidis & Weinbach, 1996). The dilemma faced by many program managers in community-based nonprofit organizations is their lack of training in evaluation research with preferred experimental or quasi-experimental designs and control processes and limited budgets that prevent hiring consultants to carry out the evaluations. Many practitioners seek knowledge from evaluation research that can help them improve their programs, not just respond to the call for externally conducted outcome evaluations. …