Evaluate As If Nobody’s Watching

Two quick announcements before today’s post. First, as I mentioned last week, I’m heading off to the annual conference of the Canadian Evaluation Society, taking place April 30 – May 3 in Vancouver. I’m looking forward to connecting with friends and colleagues during that time, so if you’ll be in attendance, look me up! I’m hoping to write some blog posts while out there and will likely be active on Twitter. Important to note – while I will have email access, I may be delayed in responding to emails, both during the conference and the following week (up to and including May 10) as I’ll be taking some vacation time in the area following CES.

The second announcement is more of testing the waters. Vu Le, non-profit unicorn extraordinaire and the man behind the thought-provoking site Nonprofits with Balls1, recently suggested Thursday May 25 as a day for non-profit agencies and funders to meet (jump to the end of the post) – not with any formal agenda, but simply to connect as individuals and chat. I’m thinking to arrange this kind of meetup in Saskatoon – any of my readers interested? Drop me a line if you this is something you’d like to see.

(As a side note, I had drafted up the post below before learning about this event – chalk it up to coincidence and/or fate that it’s related to funders and evaluation!)

Evaluation and accountability: for many non-profit organizations, these two concepts are inextricably linked. Granting bodies, in providing funds for programs and services, expect that their resources are used to create positive change, whether it’s improved test scores for children, stabilized living situations for those in crisis, or fewer people living in poverty. As part of the application process, most funders ask would-be recipients to provide the goals and objectives of their program, along with outlining how they will demonstrate whether these goals are being met. Successful applicants are then required to report on these metrics to show that the funds were used effectively.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is an important function for evaluation, both for the funders and the organization themselves. After all, why spend money and staff time on a program or service that is not creating its intended effect? At the same time, evaluation can provide multiple benefits for non-profits, including through means that wouldn’t prompt comparisons with a visit from financial auditors.

Uncertain about how evaluation can be useful beyond satisfying funder requirements? Follow along for a quick thought experiment. Take the phrase “dance as if nobody was watching” and apply the general principle – namely “Evaluate as if no funder or key external stakeholder would see the results” (not as succinct as the original, but you get the idea). What if we evaluated for a purpose beyond accountability? What would the process look like, in what ways would it differ from previous evaluations completed solely for a funder, and how would we use it?

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CES 2017: Evaluation and Change

I find it interesting that the two major evaluation conferences I attend are usually scheduled in spring and fall (respectively), the seasons of change1. At its heart, the field is about change: both in terms of understanding and cataloguing what has transpired as the result of an intervention or program, but also supporting new developments by providing feedback and ideas for further improvements and refinement. There’s one more reason why change is central to evaluation, though – our work is not immune to it either. We have to be aware that our contexts and those we partner with also face change regularly, requiring us evaluators to identify and understand what’s happening around us and respond in kind.

The two sessions I’m presenting at the upcoming Canadian Evaluation Society (CES) conference in Vancouver both touch on this idea of being aware of and responsive to our contexts2. Kirstie Gibson, a former placement student with Strong Roots Consulting, and I will be presenting on research that we conducted with local non-profits that examined their perspectives on evaluation. My other session, with Craig Moore of South Shore Evaluation in Nova Scotia, is a thematic breakfast roundtable that invites other consultants from smaller cities and regions in Canada (loosely defined) to chat about the benefits and challenges related to being “the only one in town” when it comes to evaluation consulting. Two pretty different topics, but I think there’s a common thread around the importance of communication and collaboration to successfully navigate situations that are much more complex than the safe examples we practice with in workshops or classroom settings.

With CES approaching in less than two weeks, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to connect with colleagues from across Canada and even other continents (I’m attending a workshop that includes presenters from New Zealand!). More importantly, these events always provide an opportunity to expand my thinking, identify new approaches and methods that I can incorporate into my practice, and most importantly, remind me that when change happens, there’s a community there to help me make sense of it. For my friends and colleagues who will be in attendance, I’ll see you soon in Vancouver! Everyone else, keep an eye on this blog and the Strong Roots Twitter account the week of April 30 as I share insights and ideas from the conference.

  1. Yes, I understand that there are only so many months in the year to hold a conference, that traveling during the winter sucks and many people would rather be on vacation in summer than sitting in a convention centre somewhere – it’s a metaphor, just let me roll with it! 
  2. I’d like to pretend that this was intentional – perhaps subconsciously?