Throughout my career, I have struggled to make assessment and evaluation accessible and meaningful—to myself first of all, but also to program participants, staff, and funders. Early in my career as an adult educator, I discovered that the usual tools, such as standardized tests, didn’t give any of these stakeholders—or me—much useful information. I learned that, in order to get a real picture of what and how you are doing, you need to make evaluation an ongoing process, using a variety of tools to collect data. You need to take time to analyze the data and then to reflect on and discuss what it means to you, to program participants, and to the program as a whole. Evaluation became an important tool not only for judging what was going on with my class or program, but also for planning.
Moving toward participatory, informative evaluation can be expensive and time consuming, but it is well worth the effort. Programs that go through this process obtain data not only to give to funders, but also to inform their strategic planning.
Begin with the staff in your process of establishing meaningful evaluation. Most program staff think that evaluation is solely about “accountability.” To make evaluation a useful tool for program planning, you need change their perspective. Why should program evaluation be important to your staff? Point out the benefits:
The first step is to set aside regular time for staff to discuss evaluation and its benefits and to think about what information they need in order to understand the impact of their program. Integrate ongoing evaluation into regular staff meetings. You are not asking staff for token involvement; you want them to engage actively in a process that gives them real influence in decisions. If possible, set aside several meetings within a month to begin the process. Have a trained evaluator, or a staff member with evaluation experience, head up the project and lead the sessions.
The first staff development session on evaluation should focus on participants’ experiences with evaluation. From those experiences, staff members can brainstorm new ways to think about evaluation. Here are some steps to help staff members expand their definition of evaluation:
You’ll need several more sessions to come up with a plan for meaningful evaluation. In future sessions, staff members should:
The final product is a plan for implementing the evaluation strategies staff have designed together.
How long should this process take? It depends on many factors unique to your program, not least of which is the amount of time staff and other stakeholders can commit. In most cases, you can have a bare-bones evaluation plan in three to four sessions. But don’t stop there! Think of evaluation as an ongoing project, similar to strategic planning. As with strategic planning, you work intensely on the plan for a short period. Then you integrate the plan into your work—and your reporting system—every day, until it’s time to revisit the plan in a couple of years.
For more information on participatory evaluation, read "A Participatory Model for Evaluating Social Programs" (.pdf file).