Funders and investors generally hire evaluators for our expertise in gathering information, analyzing it, and synthesizing it for our clients. But the most effective evaluators are more than just objective researchers and accomplished number crunchers. First and foremost, we are partners and problem solvers.
After all, evaluation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. An effective evaluator needs to have a deep understanding of your needs, as well as your respect and trust, so that the evaluation she produces enables continual learning and feeds into your strategic planning and ongoing practice. And the work she does should help you solve real problems. It should replace confusion with clarity, reduce uncertainty and doubt, and enable progress through better decision making. An effective evaluation shouldn’t just add up the numbers. It should tell you what the numbers add up to—given your strategic objectives, considering your ultimate mission, factoring in your short-term and long-term goals.
All of which implies that your relationship with your evaluator matters, maybe more than you ever realized. Developing the sort of relationship that enables effective evaluation requires open, solutions-oriented communication. As such:
Your evaluator should be an open book.
Evaluators need to communicate what they are doing—and how—in order to gain your trust and buy-in. Your evaluator should share her thinking openly to avoid the perception that evaluation is a black box: you put data into the box, something happens, and a report with recommendations comes out. In reality, an evaluation is a collection of decisions about the best ways to measure and examine the what, how, and why of your work. An evaluator who keeps you informed along the way will ensure your confidence that she is taking the best path.
Your evaluator should ask lots of questions, and listen closely.
In the process of sharing information with you, your evaluator should ask a lot of questions. This should not make you wonder whether you picked the right expert. On the contrary, such questioning demonstrates that your evaluator wants to get to know you well—to figure out your organization’s desire and appetite for evaluation and to help ensure that your investment in evaluation will be worthwhile. Of course, the key is that your evaluator not just ask questions but also listen closely to your answers, internalizing them and using them as guides for making the sorts of decisions about how best to measure and examine your work described above.
Your evaluator should be solutions oriented.
And if you find yourself with difficult findings on your hands—if an evaluation produces information that you and/or your colleagues may not want to hear—you need to be able to rely on your evaluator to help translate those findings into lessons you can learn from and/or steps you can take to improve, to help you move from challenges to solutions. Without ever fudging or sugarcoating the data, your evaluator should be able to put findings into a context that is actionable, to reframe the information to help you look to the future, take your next step, and not dwell on bad news. You have to trust your evaluator enough to let her help you find that next step.
Of course, your evaluator also has to bring the relevant expertise you need to get the job done. Ultimately, she has to provide the expert eye and objective guidance required to deepen your understanding, increase your effectiveness, and achieve the meaningful change you wish to see in the world.
I am not suggesting that the goal of your relationship with your evaluator should be to become close enough friends to earn an invite to her child’s wedding. What I am suggesting is that your relationship with your evaluator should be built on mutual respect and trust and that—if and when you become unsure of the path you are taking—you should be able to talk to her about it frankly and get the guidance you need to advance your work and its impact on the world. Without such a relationship of trust and understanding, neither you nor your evaluator can do your best work.
Julie Slay leads Arabella’s evaluation practice, employing a range of methodologies and tools to help clients understand the effectiveness of their grants and other investments—and ultimately determine how they can best use their resources to achieve the outcomes they seek. She directs teams using both qualitative and quantitative evaluation approaches to conduct developmental, formative, and retrospective evaluations, as well as to develop evaluation frameworks, tools, and instruments that enable ongoing learning, effective monitoring, and practical program management.