Musings on Evaluation

For information about the evaluation services I can offer your organization, click here.

Here’s a quick story that may appear to be about jam but is really about evaluation: We begin in my friend’s apartment, with me struggling to open a jar of homemade jam. I asked my friend for a butter knife so I could whack the rim with the heavier end (this disrupts the seal and makes the jar easier to open.) My friend responded, “But if you dent my rim, I won’t be able to reuse the jar to make more jam!” Having never made jam myself, I had not considered this problem. My tried and true method would not work here in my friend’s apartment. Fortunately she had a nifty jar-opening tool just for the occasion, thus saving the day and teaching me a valuable lesson!

How many ways are there to open a jar when the lid just won’t budge? Reddit has plenty of answers but one thing is for sure: the best solution will depend on your own capacity, your resources at hand, and the jar itself. Arguably more important is the context: Are you planning to re-use the jar? (And are you in public? Is there even anything inside the jar!?)

I had a method that I deemed valuable and effective. And I was ready to apply the method in a new setting without fully evaluating the potential consequences.

Fortunately, evaluation, just like jar-opening, is and should be a collaborative exercise in which multiple stakeholders come together to consider key questions, concerns, and contexts. Through the evaluation process, we learn how well a program or an organization is working to achieve its intended goals in addition to other spillover outcomes.

Evaluation is a systematic process to determine merit, worth, value or significance.

American Evaluation Association

What I find so compelling about evaluation is that it demands creative listening to the problem at hand and a systematic plan to address it. Sometimes listening can be hard, like when we have a method we know has worked in the past or if there is a new voice or context that was beyond our imagination or especially challenging to hear. But inevitably we learn something useful and empowering, and that is the whole point.

I don’t want to be the kind of person that always opens jars the same way and I know that most individuals, programs, and organization similarly seek ways to learn how they’re doing and make improvements. If at this point, you’re concerned that I will simply whack your program with the blunt end of a butter knife, you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out my past evaluation projects and get in touch if you’d like to work together!

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