Strategic Evaluation: Where do we go from here?

I was recently talking about my experience as an evaluator with a group of students at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. One of the students made a comment that bothered me a little. She said “Honestly, evaluation doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing in the world, it sounds kinda boring!” I really enjoy what I do so I took her statement as a challenge. I know that there are many things happening in the field of evaluation that make it very exciting. Perhaps the most important one is evaluation’s ability to help the philanthropic sector be more strategic.

Increasingly, foundations, corporations, and nonprofits are realizing that in order to solve social problems they need to ground their strategy on reliable and valid data. While philanthropy is shifting towards more strategic giving, the evaluation field is also expanding its toolbox from the traditional model of “post hoc” accountability to more forward-looking approaches. These new tools are producing findings and insights that help social program leaders make more informed choices in real time.

Evidence of these shifts can be seen in the professional literature. For example, the following two publications highlight the link between strategy and evaluation in philanthropy:

  • GEO and the Council on Foundations published a report called Evaluation in Philanthropy: Perspectives from the Field which reaffirms the role of evaluation in foundation strategy: “Evaluation …is an essential precursor to effective strategy in philanthropy. It produces the data, information and understanding that enable grantmakers to develop and fine -tune their strategies.”
  • A recent publication of the American Evaluation Association’s journal New Directions for Evaluation was entirely dedicated to the link between evaluation and strategy. In the journal, Michael Q. Patton and Patricia A. Patrizi, two well respected evaluators, discuss the new role of evaluation in strategy “Evaluation is a support for strategy. First and foremost, evaluation must be seen and positioned as a key support for strategy development and management; it should have a seat at the strategy table.”

While these examples signal an interesting paradigm shift, nothing beats the inspiration of real-world experience. Through my work at FSG, I have been supporting the work of Battle Creek Unlimited (BCU) (which is heavily funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation). BCU is an economic development organization implementing a plan to revitalize downtown Battle Creek, Michigan. The initiative’s primary goal is to establish the city as a national leader in food science and food safety research. FSG has been engaged for more than a year in evaluating this project, which involves a varied group of stakeholders from the Kellogg Foundation, Kellogg Company, community organizations, local businesses, universities, and governmental agencies.

As we design and implement evaluation projects, we are always keeping an eye out for the strategic implications of what we are learning. Not only do we collect data using multiple methods with a variety of individuals, but we communicate our findings and insights to our key stakeholders during regularly scheduled check-in meetings which help them make timely decisions about their strategy and implementation plan. Our evaluations are giving organizations like BCU the opportunity to revisit their theory of change based on what we have learned along the way and helping them increase their social impact.

Working at this intersection between strategy and evaluation is very interesting and rewarding. I’m very excited to be part of this movement of evaluators that are using data to help organizations be more strategic in evaluating how they help people and communities in need. I’m curious to learn more about your experience using evaluation to make more informed decisions and I want to invite you to share your experiences with me in the comments section below.

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