Thursday, January 5, 2012

If Your Friends Were Jumping off a Bridge, Would You Do It Too?

Ok, show of hands – how many of you had parents that asked the title of blog or a similar question when you were a teenager? I’m looking forward to a number of years from now when I utter those words out loud. Truth be told, I have had several opportunities in the past years to say something similar when working with organizations around evaluation.

It doesn’t take much to recognize that I’m a strong proponent of evaluation. Would a guy who didn’t think evaluation was important call himself The Evaluation Evangelist?... However, I am also a strong proponent of use of the information gleaned from an evaluation AND very much against wasting resources on creating information that will not be used.

I’m going to ask you to raise your hands again here… How many of you have been asked to design an evaluation and when you ask your client those fateful words – “what would you like to learn?”, you get a response of a blank look, confusion, or something to the effect of, “we don’t know, we were hoping you could tell us”? Trying to get more information, you might follow up with a question like, “why do you want an evaluation done?” and get the response of “the funder wants one”, “we are supposed to do an evaluation”, or the like. More often than not, I find myself on the receiving end of one of these responses.

As consultants, do you find yourself trying to design an evaluation for a client that doesn’t know what they want or why they are hiring you to do the evaluation? As program or organizational leaders, are you finding yourself hiring evaluators without knowing what you plan to get out of the evaluation? My guess is that at least some of you are nodding your heads or at least remembering a time when you might have found these to be true.

So, why is evaluation so popular these days? As people interested in the promotion of evaluation, why should we care as to why evaluation is popular and just enjoy the fact that interest is increasing? As an evangelist, shouldn’t I just be content that people are now asking for evaluation and thus I’m employed to help them understand what evaluation can do for them? To this, I must answer an emphatic NO!

Evaluations done just because a funder requires it or because the leadership has heard or read somewhere that it is a good thing to do (or worse, because it just is something one must do) will end up not being used. At best, the contracted or internally hired evaluator might be able to work with the organization to identify evaluation questions – but in the end, the organization needs to be the one driving the questions.

Metaphorically – think of the joke about the drunk that has lost a quarter and is looking under the streetlight. Along comes a guy who asks the drunk what he is looking for and the drunk tells him about the quarter. The guy asks the drunk where he lost the quarter and the drunk points off in a direction and says, “over there”. When then asked why he is looking under the streetlight, the drunk says, “the light is better over here.” I liken this experience to the organization that is asking for evaluation without guidance. In this case, the drunk (the organization) wants help to find something and the guy (the evaluator) winds up having to ask all sorts of questions that may unpack an issue to address.

But it can be and often is worse… For these organizations often don’t have evaluation questions formulated, it is as if the drunk is searching for something, but doesn’t know what it is. He may actually have never lost the quarter in the first place. As such, the helpful evaluator might find a different quarter, a dime, a stick of gum, and a rusty bolt on that sidewalk as well. All these things might be useful in some ways to the client, but since he doesn’t know what he is missing (if anything), he may not value the findings. As such, the evaluation findings are not used.

Now, some may argue that there are situations where having evaluation questions on the front end isn’t a good thing. Perhaps those situations exist, but even then, I would hope that there is some reason for engagement in evaluation other than just because it is done or others are doing it.

So dear reader, I leave you with a thought for the next time you consider an evaluation (either requesting one or supporting one). Think to yourself, why are you on the bridge and why are you considering taking the leap. Is it because it is in support of thought out evaluation questions or because everyone else is doing it?

As always, I’m open to your comments, suggestions, and questions. Please feel free to post comments.

Best regards,

Charles Gasper

The Evaluation Evangelist

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