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Developmental Evaluation Is in the Air!

Complexity. Systems change. Adaptation. Emergent thinking. These words were in constant use throughout the recent American Evaluation Association conference held in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The conference theme – Complex Ecologies – certainly invited the evaluation field to submit ideas, proposals, and examples of evaluations that examine the world in this big picture way. And, it was on full display throughout the week.

We also recognized that a relatively new evaluation approach, Developmental Evaluation, also seemed to be on everyone’s mind that week. “DE” as it is commonly known, is an approach to evaluation that is particularly well-suited for evaluating innovative programs, interventions, and initiatives many of which exist in complex environments, where the path to success is unpredictable. Conversations about developmental evaluation showed up in more than 30 sessions, in the hallways, and even at one of the nearby watering holes (The Local was an FSG favorite!).

Topics discussed ranged from how the role of the developmental evaluator differs from that of a formative or summative evaluator, to challenges associated with ensuring evaluation quality in innovative and complex situations, to what developmental evaluation is like in practice.

A take-away from our AEA experience was that an increasing number of evaluators and funders are intrigued by what developmental evaluation offers those who are trying new and novel ways of addressing complex social problems.

Outside of AEA, discussions around developmental evaluation also have spread like wildfire. Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement’s monthly e-magazine recently featured FSG’s white paper, Evaluating Social Innovation, highlighting the need for evaluation approaches that strengthen strategic learning, rather than solely focus on accountability for outcomes. In addition, after reading the Evaluating Social Innovation white paper, Steve Wright, VP Poverty Tools and Insights at the Grameen Foundation recently wrote:

In our work at Grameen Foundation we have embraced the ideas of the [Lean] Startup which to me means that as we build solutions we are constantly testing our guesses against the reality that our customers are experiencing. This means that as we receive data from our customers we are constantly asking ourselves, "should we pivot or persevere?" The problem with this paradigm is that it flies in the face of traditional funder reporting where specific targets are set as deliverables. This might work great for an existing model that has a proven track record but how do we deal with new models where the specifics of the targets are unclear? This article describes a process called developmental evaluation (DE) which is specifically designed to help entrepreneurs use real-time evaluation insights to help refine the work.

To continue our collective learning about developmental evaluation, FSG will be co-hosting a webinar on Evaluating Social Innovation: Insights from the Field with the Center for Evaluation Innovation on November 14th. Webinar panelist, Meg Long, Deputy Director of OMG Center for Collaborative Learning, recently blogged about the power of using DE to fuel a research and development (R&D) approach to solving social problems. Meg will be joined on the panel by John Cawley, Director of Programs and Operations at J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. Wednesday’s webinar is another opportunity to hear from DE funders and practitioners about this emergent evaluation approach.

There are also many developmental evaluation related resources available through the AEA e-library, which can be perused at your leisure. 

We hope you, too, will join the DE conversation and tweet along with hashtag #strategiceval.

Katelyn Mack

Former Director, FSG