Evaluating your evaluation

Evaluation, as a discipline, has many similarities to Market Research. Consistent characteristics of both are:

  1. an assessment of the knowledge that already exists
  2. a clear focus on the outcome
  3. a robust process, and
  4. good communication.

Your perspective on an evaluation project inevitably changes whether you are the evaluator, the subject of the evaluation or the beneficiary of the project under consideration. What doesn’t change is the robustness of the process and whatever the project it is important therefore to understand how to carry out an effective evaluation.

Firstly, an assessment of the knowledge that already exists should always be the starting point for any project. In research terms, this can be as simple as identifying whether the same study has been conducted before. In terms of evaluation, this starts with the background to the project, its objectives and the outcomes it is expected to deliver.

It might be useful at the planning stage to consider evaluations of similar exercises, either to benchmark the value generated by the project or to understand where mistakes have been made previously and how best these can be overcome. I’ve worked on projects that are the first of their kind and projects that have been done before, but there is always something to be learnt from earlier work, whether it was related in some way or identical.

Understanding what has gone before, as well as looking closely at the anticipated outcomes of the project to be evaluated, gives us our key metrics for assessment.

Secondly, an understanding of what “success” looks like helps to focus both the project and its evaluation on achieving the intended goal. There is no point being wise after the event, wishing a particular insight had been gathered when the project is over. Focussing on the assessment of core metrics and milestones enables the evaluator to design their approach.

Thirdly, communication is key once the approach to evaluation has been agreed – setting expectations with funders, fundees and beneficiaries so that they each understand what the evaluation is seeking to achieve, how it will be undertaken and what their involvement will be. This process is key to both achieving the informed consent that is fundamental to participation in any market research project and the buy-in needed by all key stakeholders so that the evaluation can be conducted in a transparent, honest, atmosphere that delivers insight to benefit all.

Whether a funder knows how effectively their money has been spent, is every bit as important as whether a beneficiary can articulate how a project has impacted on them and how this relates to the efforts of the fundee, in their pursuit of success. This process can be frightening for those charged with delivering a project because they can feel as if they are being personally assessed. That is why open and honest communication is so important so that all concerned recognise they are inextricably linked to achieving success.

Fourthly, sharing the findings is the final activity an evaluator should undertake. This doesn’t mean the publication of an impenetrably long report, or clandestine behind closed doors presentations with a chosen few, rather it requires as much reflection on whom the evaluation is for as what it was intended to assess. The evaluation itself should be open to scrutiny, how else can evaluators hope to effectively challenge others. Understanding the audience is key to this process. This may require multiple presentations, along with a recognition that the success or otherwise of a project can be a very emotive subject, where suggestion can be interpreted as criticism.

Returning to the goals originally set out at the beginning of the project is key, as it reminds the evaluator of what they were seeking to understand and how the knowledge they have gained can best achieve this.

In summary, evaluation is more than just ticking boxes, it’s about understanding what success looks like, working with those seeking to achieve this and securing a legacy for the work. At the same time, an evaluation exercise can only be as effective as the work that was put into delivering it. With this in mind, we should all be focussed on delivering an outcome to the best of our ability, whether we console ourselves by understanding the challenges we faced or celebrate the successes that have been achieved.