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Program Evaluation is not a Dirty Word

Evaluative Thinking to Improve Your Results

To many organizations, program evaluation is a dreaded affliction—something that’s forced upon them as a requirement for a grant. However, you can make evaluations work for you, instead of against you.

Evaluative Thinking

  • Using critical thinking to improve and grow your program
  • Applying the same techniques to make effective decisions in everyday life

What benefits can you get from a good evaluation?

  • Discover new ideas you can use to strengthen your program.
  • Reduce uncertainty and make important decisions with greater confidence.
  • Demonstrate your true effects to funders and stakeholders.
  • Gain new insights you can use to design new and better solutions.

A big obstacle that keeps many organizations from using evaluation to benefit them is that they have not embraced “evaluative thinking.”

You can do basic evaluative thinking without any special tools or research methods. It involves many of the same skills we use for making important decisions in everyday life. You can use this critical thinking technique to identify where your program works best and to pinpoint your weaknesses.

Six Steps to Effective Program Evaluation

The skills of evaluative thinking correspond to the six steps to an effective program evaluation. I’ll go over these six steps in future articles. Here they are:

Collaborate with Stakeholders

Seek to understand the perspectives of all stakeholders—such as people receiving your program services, staff, volunteers, board members, and partnering organizations—and include them in planning and assessing your program.

Clarify How Your Idea Works

Detail what your program is expected to achieve, how it functions to accomplish its goals, and what is needed for its success.

Assess What Others Have Done

Look at how others have addressed your issue and their effective practices and lessons learned, using sources such as trade publications, research papers, books, and conference presentations.

Ask Useful Questions

Identify untested ideas and knowledge gaps that a new project or additional research might explore.

Measure Your Results

Track your plan’s progress to show if activities are happening as planned, if you’re having the effects that you think, and why or why not.

Share Your Results

Spread the word about your findings to communicate what you’re learning and achieving to stakeholders, funders, and others in your field.

How about YOUR Organization?

Are people at your organization doing these things on a regular basis? If not, yours may be among the many nonprofits that are doing wonderful work, but could be accomplishing so much more. Sadly, you might also be missing out on funding opportunities because you don’t have good data to show the true benefits of your work. So, your ability to expand your program to make a bigger difference and help more people may seem out of reach.

In too many organizations, “program evaluation” has a bad reputation. You might have had an unfortunate experience with program evaluation data not being useful or being used to justify cuts to much-needed services. The very use of the term “evaluation” might remind you of anxiety-producing employee performance evaluations. Sounds about as much fun as a head cold.

Don’t let a bad rap keep you away from a good thing. Here’s an easy way to get your people pointed in the right direction!

Quick Activity to Introduce Evaluative Thinking at Your Organization

Making changes in people’s way of thinking is never easy. However, this quick activity can spark the start of more evaluative thinking at your organization, so you can better use learning and information to increase the good you are doing and help more people.

Wade in Slowly

Asking questions about long-held ideas can be uncomfortable. So, unless your group is accustomed to talking about their thinking and questioning ideas, it’s best to introduce evaluative thinking concepts gently. In their blog post on evaluative thinking, Tom Archibald and Guy Sharrock suggest starting with a something less threatening, like critiquing a news article.

An idea that I prefer is to talk about a situation where you’d evaluate information to make decisions in everyday life, like choosing a restaurant for lunch or buying a new car. To make this easier for you, I put together a fifteen-minute evaluative thinking icebreaker activity, below, that you can use to facilitate such a conversation. If more than twelve people are in the room, you might want to have people break into small groups of two to six people for small group discussion, then have the small groups report out to the large group.

Fifteen-Minute Evaluative Thinking Ice-Breaker Activity

Imagine you’re having some friends over for dinner and you want to make something you’ve never made before, say a bean chili. You want your dish to be a big hit.

Discuss: How could you apply the six steps to evaluative thinking and effective evaluation to help you make sure your bean chili will be a success?

Collaborate with Stakeholders

For example, you might ask your friends do they like bean chili? Do they like it spicy hot or mild? Do they have any allergies or dietary preferences?

Clarify How Your Idea Works

To make sure that your idea is realistic, you might plan out things like your shopping list, when you’ll get the ingredients and cook the chili, and what dishes you’ll use to serve it.

Assess What Others Have Done

You might search for chili recipes to inspire you in your cookbooks and cooking websites, then use the best-sounding ideas to create your own recipe.

Ask Useful Questions

For example, you might be unsure how much chili powder to add, so you decide to experiment by adding a little bit at first, then letting it cook for a while and tasting it to see if more is needed.

Measure Your Results

To find out how your dish turned out, you might pay attention to whether your friends seem to be enjoying eating it. You might also ask them how they liked it and what changes they would suggest for next time.

Share Your Results

You could share your recipe with your friends or even post it on a recipe sharing website, so that others can benefit from all your hard work perfecting your bean chili masterpiece.

Get People Talking and Thinking

The idea of the fifteen-minute activity is to get people to start talking and thinking about evaluative thinking in a comfortable way before getting into questioning their long-held assumptions and ways of doing things.

Let’s take back the word “evaluation” and use evaluative thinking to make our service organizations shine!

Bernadette Wright

About the Contributor: Bernadette Wright

Bernadette is Director of Research & Evaluation at Meaningful Evidence, LLC, where she helps nonprofit organizations with program evaluation and measurement so they can use that information to increase the success of their programs and the communities they serve.

For two decades, Bernadette has managed and conducted research for non-profit, government, and business organizations in health care, aging, education, and other fields.

She is author of over 50 publicly available client reports/peer-reviewed papers. She also writes guest posts for blogs such as the Foundation Center of Washington, DC blog and the American Evaluation Association AEA365 Blog.

Bernadette also frequently presents at national and local workshops and meetings, such as a Center for Nonprofit Success workshop on Program Evaluation in Washington, DC.

She was recognized for conducting an “Exemplar Evaluation” at the 2015 American Evaluation Association Conference in Chicago and is recipient of a “Best Paper” award at the 2015 Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning Conference in Las Vegas.

Bernadette is an active member of the American Evaluation Association and its local affiliate, Washington Evaluators. She earned her PhD in Public Policy/Program Evaluation from the University of Maryland in 2002.

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