Making evaluation work for you – applied learning in real time

Brenda Doner, Manager of CLEO's Connecting Communities project, joins us today to share tips on how to get the most out of project evaluations


Are you frustrated by evaluations that are required by funders but are useless to you? Or evaluations that tell you things you know but can’t change? Or good recommendations that arrive after your project is finished?

As Michael Quinn Patton, the father of developmental evaluation, puts it, the word “evaluation”, like subpoena, biopsy, or audit, is often something we hope happens to someone else. Let’s rebrand evaluation to make it useful.

I am an accidental evaluator. In my years as a project manager I’ve written dozens of program evaluations. Often the goal of the evaluation was to keep the funder happy. We ticked the box on the last of our activities and sent off the (often glowing) evaluation in the hope that more grant money might flow. Sound familiar?

But those evaluations never helped me run projects, and I doubt they helped the funders. Managers practice evaluative thinking and adaptive management every day. We judge whether to stop or continue doing something based on what happens; we react to opportunities or challenges or we add new ideas to our plans. Little of that ends up in our evaluations. To me, the most important question is not “Did we do what we said we were going to do?” but “What changed, and why?”

Things always turn out differently than planned. Unexpected results are sometimes the best part of our projects. With the right evaluation timeline and methods, we can turn gut feelings into evidence – or, if evidence had nothing to do with what happened, into honest truth-telling to help the next project. Michael Quinn Patton calls it “making a map of the forks in the road”. The pay-off will be more responsive projects and fewer resources wasted on evaluations that will never be used or even read.

Let’s start by using the right tools:

Evaluation is too important to be reduced to “spin”, or left to the last minute. Changemakers need honest feedback, early and often.

What are your pet peeves about evaluation? How about tips for capturing and applying learning on the fly?

Brenda Doner is a consultant and project manager with forty years experience in the community benefit sector across Canada and in Africa and southeast Asia. Past employers and clients include CUSO, the Mennonite Central Committee, IMPACS – the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society, Canada Volunteerism Initiative, Tamarack – an Institute for Community Engagement, Food Secure Canada, Guelph Wellington Food Round Table, and United Way. Visit her LinkedIN profile to learn more.

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