It used to be that evaluation was something that happened occasionally, was sometimes required by funders, and could sometimes be useful. Not anymore. When you ask a room full of people who are trying to make a meaningful difference whether they have been part of an evaluation, almost everyone raises their hand. But what that means – being part of an evaluation – differs greatly from person to person.
Evaluation can be about accountability, meeting a funder requirement, or even providing information back to your board. At its best, though, evaluation is about learning – learning what worked, what didn’t, why it didn’t, what to do better next time.
Focusing your evaluation on learning
The earlier you decide to use your evaluation as a learning process, the more likely it is that it will work out that way. As your evaluator is planning the evaluation design, talk to them about what you want to know, what will help you to do good, even better. Try exploring some of the questions below with your evaluator – each of these question may bubble up an important area for learning!
- Are we implementing a strategy that is new to us, something we’ve never tried before?
- Is there a strategy we’re implementing in a new way or with a new target population?
- Is there a strategy we’ve been implementing for years, but never assessed to see if it really makes a difference?
- Is there information about our external environment that will help us to tailor our strategies and better achieve our outcomes?
- Is there information about our own organization’s internal capacity that will help us know if we’re ready to implement a strategy?
If these questions do not help you narrow your learning, try filling in the blank on this statement instead:
- Unless we know ____________________________, we won’t know how to improve our strategy.
Focus your evaluation on both Strategies and Outcomes
This may sound obvious to some of you, but it bears repeating. When we want to learn from our evaluation, we need to understand the relationship between the strategy we are implementing and the outcomes we are achieving. Let’s use some definitions:
Strategy: A defined approach to implementing multiple smaller actions (tactics), which are collectively intended to achieve a particular outcome. Strategies are completely within your control to implement or not implement as you choose.
Outcome: The change you hope to influence as a result of your strategies. It may be a change in people (yourself, your target audience, community members) or even a change in the environment (built environment, health of habitats, etc.). You cannot control whether it occurs, only do your best to influence the change.
Work with your evaluator to make sure that they are capturing the relationship between decisions and actions that are within your control and the outcomes they achieve, those things you can only hope to influence. When your evaluator presents results, telling you whether or not you’ve achieved your outcomes, nothing is worse than not being able to figure out what to change to improve your outcomes.
Intuitive learning matters too!
We’ll talk more about this in another blog coming soon, but here’s the teaser: Your evaluator, no matter how amazing, does not have the intuitive and on-the-ground knowledge of the people implementing the program. Understanding what an evaluation is really telling you means taking into account your intuitive knowledge of what is happening in your program. To learn from an evaluation, you need high quality evaluation results, but you also need to explore what the evaluation results mean with the people who understand your program best, including staff, volunteers, and even consumers.