Evaluation at Its Highest Potential

We all know there are conditions when people do an adequate job, and conditions where they thrive. Maybe a colleague of yours is in a role where she does a perfectly fine, serviceable job…but you know that when she’s working for a cause close to her heart, she really shines. Or perhaps you know a young person who is normally just an OK student…but when he’s challenged in the classroom and truly engaged in learning, he’s at his highest potential.

What if we thought of evaluation this way? If Evaluation were a person, in what conditions would Evaluation simply be doing its job, and in what conditions would Evaluation be at its best?

These are the thoughts and questions I posed at a recent community forum of executives and staff members from Hawaii nonprofits, philanthropies, and public sector agencies, convened by Aloha United Way. Evaluation, in my mind, is a critical component in creating meaningful community solutions. But just like people, Evaluation has conditions in which it is merely serviceable, and conditions in which it is maximizing its potential:

Evaluation Just Doing Its Job         vs          Evaluation at Its Best
Focuses on Accountability                              Focuses on Learning
Captures the Past                                           Used in Service to the Future
Experienced                                                   Shared


Evaluation that focuses on accountability vs. Evaluation that focuses on learning: Evaluation that is primarily concerned with accountability feels like bean-counting. It seeks to answer questions like, “Did you spend the money as you said you would?” or “Did you serve the number of clients you projected?” And as one attendee at the forum noted, a focus on accountability sends a message, fundamentally, about a lack of trust. Evaluation that focuses on learning asks altogether different questions, such as: “What’s working in your programs? What’s not working? How can we take what we’ve found, and improve going forward?” Trust is baked into learning-focused evaluation, so that even failures are seen as opportunities to gain new insights.

Evaluation that captures the past vs. Evaluation that is used in service to the future: Evaluation that is concerned primarily with capturing past performance feels like rote data collection. Past results are dutifully recorded, logged, and tucked away. But Evaluation that is, to borrow language from my colleague Hildy Gottlieb, used in service to the future, looks to identify paths to improvement. In this context, Evaluation is a tool that can actively inform strategies, helping us to shift course towards our goals in a thoughtful and responsive way.

Evaluation that is experienced vs. Evaluation that is shared: Evaluation that is simply experienced often involves objectification of some form—either the evaluation is “done to you” by evaluators, or “done by you” to clients or staff members—creating a dynamic of judgment. But Evaluation that is shared can create an altogether different dynamic in two ways. First, it can be part of a shared process where, rather than seeing others as people to be judged, they are offered a genuine place at the table to identify common areas for learning as part of a collaborative effort. Second, Evaluation can be shared as a tangible product of that process, in which the knowledge gained moves beyond a single organization’s walls. It informs the thinking of like-minded organizations in a communal way. And in both cases, Evaluation that is shared manifests an abundance mindset, something the social sector could certainly use more of.


What comparisons would you add to the table above? In what ways has your organization been able to maximize Evaluation's potential?