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The third sector is becoming a more common provider of social and health services, but little is known about how third sector organisations (TSOs) evaluate their activities. Past research has reported that the third sector is under increasing pressure to evaluate its impact and performance by government and other commissioning bodies. However, in responding to this increased pressure to undertake evaluation, research suggests that many TSOs struggle to evaluate their activities following the principles of evidence-based practice (EBP). Yet, there has been no systematic effort to investigate why the third sector is struggling to provide good quality evidence of its effects.
This systematic review is reported following the PRISMA guidelines. Ten interdisciplinary databases were searched using a search string developed following best practice and in consultation with an information systems expert. Included studies were primary research of any research design investigating barriers to and facilitators of the evaluation process of TSOs as identified by practitioners. All studies were quality appraised, and the results were synthesised as a thematic summary.
Twenty-four studies were included, which mainly investigated TSOs working within health and social services. The thematic summary identified the main barriers for TSOs to undertake evaluation to be related to the (1) lack of financial resources, (2) lack of technical capability and evaluation literacy and (3) challenges around identifying relevant evaluation systems and outcome indicators. Key facilitating factors involved (1) getting the appropriate support, (2) having an organisational culture that supports evaluation and (3) the motivation to be accountable to stakeholders. These findings were robust to study quality.
This review constitutes the first systematic effort to synthesise existing literature on factors supporting and preventing evaluation by TSOs. The prevalence of factors revolving around the lack of support, resources and clarity on appropriate outcome indicators suggests that many of the identified challenges may be met by applying evidence-based and stakeholder-inclusive strategies to develop shared evaluation requirements. Future efforts should address the application of EBP as part of the commissioning process of TSOs.