Reflections on the AEA Conference

Hi! Lindsay and Christina here. Together we lead the evaluation practice at Grassroots Solutions. We were excited to attend the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC, which we jokingly — and affectionately — referred to as Eval-Con. The conference was a massive undertaking, and we tip our hats to the event organizers and multitude of talented contributors. A week later we are still processing. But here are some nuggets that really hit home. Don’t worry, we’ll spare you the super technical and methodological stuff! Maybe that’ll be our next post…or not.

  • First, the theme “From Learning to Action” struck us as timely and aligned with our belief that evaluation is not just an information-gathering endeavor. Information should lead to learning and action for the public good.
  • In the opening plenary, Kathryn Newcomer reminded all of us that evaluation must be accountable to the people affected by what we are evaluating. Christina whispered in my ear, and to the Internet, that this a good reminder for anyone “who’s in charge of anything.” Not just evaluators. Amen.
  • At Grassroots Solutions, we believe that evaluation should advance equity and social justice. During the Dialogue on Race and Class on November 9, Dr. Melvin Hall asked what each of us can do in our evaluation practice RIGHT NOW to challenge racism and classism? Also, he suggested that evaluators need to “gain confidence to take up more space decision centers.” Let’s face it. This is NOT a role that we have embraced fully. Yes, we often ask tough questions of ourselves and our clients when we design and implement evaluation and learning activities, but we know we can — and must — do more.
  • Multiple presenters took aim at the myth of objectivity in evaluation and “strictly honest data collection” that can paint misleading pictures. Both can serve as barriers to promoting equity through evaluation. Jara-Dean Coffey nails it. P.S. If you haven’t already, check out the recent work of the Equitable Evaluation Roundtable.
  • We took part in a terrific discussion with other evaluators about ways to strengthen evaluation in philanthropy. This conversation was sponsored by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and facilitated by Equal Measure and Engage R&D. That discussion reinforced our view that it’s an opportune moment in time to reexamine business models that can improve the usefulness of evaluation in philanthropy and diversify the evaluation field. More on that to come, but in the meantime, background that informed that discussion is available here.

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