In a Word

As pragmatic as I usually am, I sometimes get hung up on words – see here and here for two examples where I debate over the meaning and connotations of words that I use to describe myself and my work. More recently, before my trip to the American Evaluation Association conference I was grappling with the word “evaluator”:

On that note, you may have noticed that my website does not mention evaluation strongly, nor do I describe myself as an “evaluator”. Like my previous discussion about calling myself a “consultant”, identifying with the field of evaluation carries with it certain connotations and assumptions, especially in a climate where money is tight and funders are increasingly asking recipients to identify program outcomes and demonstrate that their initiative has met certain goals. Ideally, evaluation should provide useful feedback that helps programs grow and evolve in response to changing circumstances, but to non-profit organizations, it can seem more like a standardized test administered by someone who has little (if any) knowledge of the local context and yet has the power to grant life or death to a program.

When I started Strong Roots, I didn’t list evaluation as a separate skill set despite my training in that field as part of my Masters degree and some real-world experience with evaluation (though never in an officially-titled “Evaluator” position). Instead, I included evaluation skills and questions under the rubric of Community-Based Research:

How are you making a difference? Who are you serving? What are their needs? Why isn’t your idea working out the way you thought it would? Addressing these questions can help your non-profit improve its approach, demonstrate successes to partners and funders, and plan for future programs and initiatives. Strong Roots provides support through the whole process, from deciding the questions, collecting the data, and analyzing and reporting the answers in easy-to-understand language.

What I call “Community-Based Research” can focus on both internal and external processes and outcomes: the former as espoused in the quote above has a strong fit with program evaluation, particularly the developmental approach I wrote about in previous posts, but the “e” word still doesn’t appear. As always I prefer to be defined by my actions rather than a label, but those catchwords serve a useful function in succinctly defining what I do. I’d guess that more people in the non-profit sector would be familiar with evaluation over community-based research, especially given that funders are increasingly focusing on program outcomes and grant applications asking for evaluation plans are becoming the rule.

This reflection brings up another thought that I’ve been considering over the past few weeks, or perhaps better to say that I’ve been reminded of. In addition to my strong interest in non-profit organizational development, I have a passion for community development and community-based initiatives (given that many non-profit organizations work on the community level and often originated in the grassroots, I don’t think there’s any conflict between the two areas of focus). So, if it’s true that my approach to research is “community-based”, then I think it would be equally true for my other skill sets: for example, I would prefer working with community organizations for strategic planning, and encourage them to incorporate insights from the communities they work with in generating ideas and plans for the future. So, why not tweak the overall focus of Strong Roots towards “community-based initiatives”? As a side benefit, this approach is more inclusive as many programs and projects at the community level include multiple stakeholders beyond non-profits, including governments, businesses, and individual community members. Reorganized thusly, I could rename the “Community-Based Research” to “Research and Evaluation” or something similar to emphasize my specific skills in evaluation.

Changing the focus of Strong Roots from “non-profit organizations and initiatives” to something like “community-based initiatives” – ongoing evolution or mission creep? As always, I welcome your thoughts through the comments field or by contacting me directly!