Focus on Nature: A Snapshot into Program Evaluation

Posted on Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Written by Emily Farrell

When we think of children playing, our minds often go to memories of running to the nearest park, playground or swimming hole, exploring and interacting with the natural world. However, with growing urban development and screen-time becoming increasingly common, many children now have fewer opportunities to connect with nature.

Focus on Nature is a registered charity based in Guelph that inspires kids to explore and connect with nature through photography. The program was established in 2008 and works to improve children’s relationship with nature and their artistic abilities by running one-day workshops in schools and day camps. The workshops provide children with the tools and skills to interpret the world around them and appreciate the beauty and wonder of nature.

The organization was formed in Guelph-Wellington, but has since expanded to two other regions: Waterloo and Halton. These expansions led to new hires and infrastructure to support program execution in these additional locations.

A Partnership for Evaluation

In 2016, Lindsey Thomson, Community Engaged Learning Manager at the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI), was introduced to Focus on Nature. Lindsey learned about Focus on Nature’s need to evaluate their program and capture feedback they had received from students and volunteers. She brought in Kathleen Slemon, an Applied Social Psychology student interested in program evaluation, to partner with them on this project.

Kathleen was tasked with designing a program evaluation in collaboration with Focus on Nature. As part of a practicum placement, she dove into the literature, reviewing evaluation methods relevant to kids and arts-based nature programming. Kathleen even volunteered with the organization to get a better sense of the program’s needs. Informed by this literature review, Kathleen, Lindsey and Focus on Nature then worked together to create a logic model and a program evaluation plan.

"As a practicum student, I gained some practical experience in designing a program evaluation. In addition, I learned how valuable these skills can be for a non-profit with a small budget.”

– Kathleen Slemon, practicum student  

This collaborative work between CESI and Focus on Nature evolved into a strong relationship and a mutual desire to continue partnering on the evaluation beyond the planning phase. As a result, CESI’s Research Shop took on the role of implementing the evaluation design that was developed through Kathleen’s practicum placement. Kathleen was also working with the Research Shop at the time, which helped facilitate the smooth transition of the project.

“Focus on Nature were so supportive, providing me with excellent feedback and opportunities to continue learning and working with them.”

– Kathleen Slemon, practicum student

Over 2017-19, Focus on Nature worked with Karen Nelson, Research Shop Coordinator, Kathleen and a team of students to bring their evaluation plan into action. The research first focused on exploring the experiences of students and volunteers who participated in Focus on Nature’s one-day photography workshops. A survey helped highlight what the students learned from the program and how participation affected their connection to nature. More recently, Aarabhi Rajendiran led a second phase of the project using focus groups and a survey to gather more information on the experience of volunteers. This helped Focus on Nature identify why volunteers continue to participate the program, what barriers exist to volunteering, and whether any improvements can be made.

The Value of this Collaboration

Having evaluation data is becoming ever more important, as organizations rely on data to improve their programs, demonstrate impact and get buy-in from partners or funders. Through this partnership with CESI, Focus on Nature can now get their stories of impact out there – a way to share their ever-growing success in a more formal way. On top of that, they now also have academic literature to support how they run their program. This evidence will help strengthen the case for this type of programming in funding applications, outward communications, and in conversations with potential donors – especially in a context where funding to non-profit and community-based services is being cut.

“Meeting with various members of CESI over the past three years has granted our board team opportunities to reflect on what we do for kids, how we do it and how we might engage with community stakeholders in best possible ways. Logic models and results of student, volunteer and board surveys support us as we approach community foundations and corporations for much needed funding.”

– Rosanne Morris, President of Focus on Nature

As for Kathleen, her relationship with Focus on Nature didn’t quite end with the completion of this research project. Her experience working with the organization led her to pursue another form of partnership: she is now on the Board of Directors for Focus on Nature.

“It’s just kind of come full circle. I think that’s one of the benefits of students being involved in community engaged scholarship while they’re students – is that they do make those connections, deep collaborative relationships with community partners.”

– Lindsey Thomson, Community Engaged Learning Manager at CESI

What’s Next?

What’s next for Focus on Nature, you ask? Some of the organization’s longer-term and broader goals are to not only impact the kids within their program, but to affect the broader community through their families. They want to see change within the community now and in the future, instilling habits and influencing decisions about sustainability practices and connections to nature.

In light of the success of their program, the passionate and dedicated people behind this organization have also expanded to cover yet another region, Hamilton-Wentworth, in Spring of 2019.

“Focus on Nature has benefited greatly from its relationship with the highly motivated and exceptional team at CESI. We exist ‘to inspire young people to explore and connect with the natural world through photography’. And, we are grateful that our work with CESI researchers is supporting us as we move into our fourth provincial region in creative, thoughtful ways!”

– Rosanne Morris, President of Focus on Nature

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