Purpose-Filled Evaluations

Happy New Year from FSG’s Strategic Learning and Evaluation blog! As I welcomed 2012, I sat with friends around a table for an annual New Year’s Day brunch. Each year, we have taken time to reflect on the year and share our New Year resolutions. I suspect it’s a tradition that takes place across many tables on January 1st. As I pondered what I wanted my 2012 resolutions to be, I began to think about purpose. What is (or should be) the purpose of my resolution list? What do I hope to achieve or see different in 2012?

It seems that if I tie my resolutions – running a half marathon, cooking more – to a guiding purpose, such as staying healthy and strong, that I might be more likely to stick with them over the next 365 days. When I’ve made resolutions that are action-oriented and tied to an explicit purpose, I have had more success than for those that are purpose-less.

Just as purpose can help us fulfill resolutions to spend more time with family and friends or quit a bad habit, it is also an essential component of good evaluation practice. In Michael Quinn Patton’s book, Utilization-Focused Evaluation, he describes how many evaluations are designed and conducted without considering its purpose or the evaluation’s “intended use.” Patton writes, “To evaluate how well you’re doing, you must have some place you’re trying to get to…For evaluators, this means clarifying intended uses of a particular evaluation.”

How evaluations are to be used and by whom is strongly related to their purpose. Patton discusses six primary types of purpose/intended use:

  • Summative Judgment
  • Learning and Formative Improvement
  • Accountability
  • Monitoring
  • Development
  • Knowledge Generation

For example, if an evaluation’s purpose is to better understand what works and what doesn’t (i.e. learning), then the primary use of evaluation findings is program improvement. If the purpose of the evaluation is to assess whether goals are being met and funds are being used as expected (i.e., accountability), then oversight and compliance are primary evaluation uses.

  • Who the evaluation stakeholders (i.e., intended users) are – program staff, foundation board members, community residents – can also influence the purpose and intended uses of the evaluation. Board members may expect the evaluation to serve a different purpose than the program beneficiaries. Check out our blog post, webinar, or FSG's report, Practical Guide for Engaging Stakeholders in Developing Evaluation Questions, if you’re interested in learning more about how to get stakeholders more engaged so that evaluation findings get used.
  • I invite you to reflect on ongoing or upcoming evaluations and take stock of the purpose and intended use of the evaluation. Have you explicitly articulated the evaluation purpose? How might the purpose have changed over time? What activities or process might facilitate use of your evaluation findings?
  • May your year be filled with purpose-filled and useful evaluations!
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