The evaluation component often is an after-thought for grant completion, but really is a crucial step that must be conceptualized even before the first dollar of the grant is spent. If you are using grant funds building a road, running a clinic program, or educating inner city youth, you need to be able at the end of the grant award period to prove that you have met the goals of the grant. If there is a road built, does it meet the standards promised and go from where it was supposed to begin to where it was supposed to end? If it was a clinic program, did people get healthier and how can you prove it? For the inner city education project, did the students get educated and how much? You can either measure the processes completed (e.g., number of loads of concrete laid, number of clients going through the clinic, number of students attending classes, number of new classes created, etc.) or you can try to look at the true outcomes desired. The number of loads of concrete used is not really a good result if the people traveling the road are in danger, and the number of clients seen is not really so important if they are getting poor quality care, and the number of classes developed is not so important if the students in them still cannot pass standardized exams or find a job. (In the national federal health program that I once ran, we wanted to the outcome of reducing teenage health risk-taking activities, but often it was hard to prove that so complicated a social/health status outcome was actually affected by any program we might start or pamphlet we might write. So, we often used process evaluation measures like the number of people attending our programs as the measure of the program’s effectiveness. A better measure we sometimes used was pre- and post-tests, where the teenagers would be asked to take a quiz on what they knew before and after a class to show there had been a change in what they knew. However, even that might not always prove they might have some desired change in their behavior later.
Funding agencies more and more want you to justify your program’s funding by showing some real results that a disinterested person would say was good proof that the money was well-spent. Learn the funding agency’s value system and program mission to help you state the effectiveness of your program in terms they will respect. Usually the grant application your organization submitted to get the grant had some specific program evaluation ideas in it, and you need especially to follow-though with any promises made along that line. Do not assume the funding agency or the public or your own stakeholders will automatically assume that your grant implementation efforts were great simply because you spent all or most of the money.
On the topic of spending all or part of the money, remember that the return of a small amount of money is not a bad thing – it shows you did not just spend it all to spend it all, but also realize that sending back a large amount suggests that you over estimated the cost of your project and you may be looked at with less respect for not being able to better estimate your likely costs. An exception would be if you developed some innovative cost savings idea during the expenditure period that could not have been easily projected before the application was submitted – savings returned because of your special initiative on behalf of saving the granting agency’s funds will be greatly appreciated and be seen as evidence that you are a good steward of their money.