Evaluation and philanthropic learning are essential to driving social change. Here are five trends to look out for in 2017 – and likely beyond:
1. Integrating Evaluation into Strategy
In the philanthropic, nonprofit, and public sectors, and more recently with socially oriented businesses, demand for evaluation services is burgeoning. One of the many reasons for this surge is a desire to balance aspiration with results. Over the years, I’ve witnessed evaluation shift from simply being a compliance-focused assessment, based on “proving” the merit of an investment, to becoming an essential part of early strategy development. Evaluation partners are slowly being brought in alongside program strategists – at the outset of an investment – to inform a program’s implementation, assess the feasibility of the program having the desired impact, and develop processes to measure impact. This is a healthy movement that helps align expectations before the first dollars are awarded.
2. Driving Social Sector R&D
Evaluation is also driving what I describe as “social sector R&D.” In other words, there is a much greater emphasis on actual learning. Organizations want to determine early – and consistently – whether a program’s strategy is being implemented effectively. In order to perform this role successfully, evaluators and firms must have diverse skill sets such as technical assistance and capacity building, business strategy, communications, design thinking, organizational development, and community engagement. When those skills are present, evaluators and firms can help funders engage in new levels of risk taking and innovation.
3. Expanding the Practice of Culturally Responsive Evaluation (CRE)
CRE offers fresh ways to infuse the perspectives of community members and diverse stakeholders into investment strategies. This allows us to understand how a strategy is taking shape, address its unintended consequences, and reduce structural barriers. This movement toward authentic listening, toward integrating and helping community voices inform the strategy and the evaluation, is a critical first step to increase the cultural relevancy – and thereby the effectiveness – of evaluations and investments. However, for CRE to become more widely used, we need more diverse perspectives in evaluation. The field needs to identify new approaches to talent development, workforce pipeline cultivation, and retention.
4. Sharpening Our Role as Communicators and Storytellers
There is now a much stronger relationship between evaluation, communications, and thought leadership. As a sector, we are more pressed to make a strong case about the good we’re doing and to create a compelling narrative about why an investment worked, how it worked, and the tangible difference it made in people’s lives. And we need to communicate that case to a variety of audiences – ideally incorporating the voices of those audiences, which can result in a more authentic story. We must continue to embed thought leadership requirements into every evaluation. This will ensure that what we learn benefits the fields in which we work.
5. Strengthening Our Value as a Learning Ally
I believe evaluators are playing a stronger role in helping funders and nonprofit organizations be effective by acting as continuous learning partners. To be specific, I’m seeing more long-term investments with evaluation as an integral element of the strategy, particularly in more complex initiatives that focus on systems change, scale, and broader community change. In this role, evaluators are offering regular counsel about what works, what doesn’t, and why – and are recommending refinements based on what they learn.