I was reading through my previous Blog posts over the past few years and I came across a post I made in November 17, 2010 – the title?... Wait for it… My Return. There it had been over a year since my last post. Well, once again, I’m writing about my return and once again, it has been over a year.
Today, I shared with many of you a change that occurred in my life. I had been considering doing something like this for well over a year and finally decided it was time to switch things. Earlier this month, I started working for the TCC Group. TCC works with Foundations, Nonprofits, and Corporate Giving. The institution has over 30 years of experience in the areas of strategy, grants management, capacity building and evaluation.
I was thinking it was a good idea to write about where I have been for the past year (really years) and why I haven’t written. Then I realized – I have been working as an evaluator for over 20 years, have I ever really told you why I got into the business?
Have a seat, I’m going to share a bit here about how I got here.
Setting the Hook
In 1991 or so, I was an undergraduate student at Santa Clara University. There, I was working with someone who would greatly influence my life, Dr. William McCormack. One of the courses was on organizational development and we were required to work with an organization, writing a case study. That experience drove me to think more about organizational effectiveness and impact – but it took a few more steps to put me on my path.
There was some additional evaluative work done, but in 1995 I found my love. I was working on a project to assess the impact of a program on the quality of life of the individuals. When the evaluation was completed and we submitted our findings, the state took our work and changed the program – improving the lives of the people served. Thousands of people were impacted by my work! I had found my calling.
Learning that Learning is Important
Along the way, I worked in quality management for a health system. This experience molded my view on evaluation further, evolving it away from summative, value-focused work to learning and improvement. Our work improved the experience and health outcomes for patients in hospitals and also resulted in organizational savings for the health system. We weren’t conducting long-term studies, but instead focusing on short-term outcomes that predicted long-term success. The mantra of the day for organizational change was, “what can we get done by next Tuesday?”
Movement to Large-Scale Impact and Collaboration
In 2007, I became a Director of Evaluation for a large health-focused foundation, the Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH). It was time to think differently again – or perhaps better said, to broaden my thought. Prior to coming to MFH, my focus was on program evaluation (even if the programs were larger). Now it was time to see how multiple programs (yep, was still focused on programs) could interact with one another to affect larger scale impact. During my stent at MFH, I also returned to graduate school and while my evaluative practice was informed by program theory, it truly shifted to being theory-based (I’ll talk about that in a later blog). I started to think about systems in a broader sense, not only seeing how an individual program interacted with a larger system, but how systems change can affect improvement across broad swaths of issues.
Evaluation as an Intervention
About this time I started thinking about evaluation differently. I recognized that programs and systems evolve over time and that evaluation can better support the effort if it doesn’t stand completely separate. Provision of shorter-term information tied to program theory can better inform the evolution of programs and identify where the efforts are being effective. There has been a shift in AEA in recent years, now recognizing that evaluators can be and some think should be involved in program design. My epiphany in 2010 was my tied to my recognition that my role as an evaluator in a foundation should support such work.
Most recently, I’ve focused on how collaboratives are built and the results of the collective effort. I’ve been assessing how these efforts combine with and attempt to change simple and complex systems. You can think of these as multiple programs working in concert. In reality, the concert often sounds like a bunch of instruments tuning up versus following a score. My work has focused on how to get the instruments to play together in the same hall, follow an agreed upon score and perhaps follow the baton of an agreed upon conductor. (We will revisit this analogy in a later Blog post.) There is a great deal to learn about collaboratives. Certainly, this is something that has been done for years. Folks have given it different brand names, but really it is just about learning how groups of people, organizations, civic leaders, and communities can come together to affect systems change.
Which Brings Us to Today
The process of moving to the TCC Group made me contemplate my practice as an evaluator. In the interest in keeping this post relatively short, I only shared some of the revelations I made. My journey reflects two key things, 1) my own personal growth in the field and 2) evolution in the field of social change. To be clear, programs are still important. Valuing the impact of those efforts is also very important. However, sustainability of the programs and their supporting organizations, organizational and communal learning, and systems change have become more important as those attempting to affect larger scale change turn away from focusing on just their work to look at the environment around them.
And So It Goes
I hope you enjoyed reading about my evolution as an evaluator. Much like the programs and systems we evaluate, my practice will continue to grow. I would be very interested in learning your stories around how your engagement and understanding of evaluation has changed over time.
As always, I’m open to your comments, suggestions, questions and yes, your stories. Please feel free to post comments.
The Evaluation Evangelist