This debate can get heated, as it did recently in a meeting at one mid-size NGO. Service providers felt they’d hit a point of diminishing returns with apparently endless investigations and inquiries, and they made their point clear: “We know what the problem is! We have scarce resources, and we need to take action now! No more expensive studies.”
Collecting data to design our programs can be integrated into the day-to-day (see a snapshot scenario covered in this earlier posting), and there are ways to bring evaluation down to earth as well.
Why bother? While bad evaluation is an agonizing distraction from meaningful work, good evaluation is the yeast in your dough, the grease in your gears, the bass player in your band: the thing that can move an intervention from mediocre to amazing.
Participatory Evaluation blends data collection and evaluation with programming, and it does so with elegance and immediate impact. Essentially, this approach makes designing and implementing an evaluation the first stage of an intervention.
In addition to the many concrete benefits of building a program responsive to participants, Participatory Evaluation makes empowerment intrinsic to a project from the start. Incorporating the reactions and ideas of participants puts their perspective and assets front and centre. Young people in particular seem to respond well to this process. The Lifting New Voices Project explains the hows and whys of Participatory Evaluation with youth in greater detail. It’s inspiring stuff.
While poor evaluation can be a liability, when tailored to the interventions underway and the style of those involved, it can be an enormous asset. If intervention and evaluation aren’t in discord, they can work together beautifully: two shared, essential parts of a whole nonprofit program.