Why did I sign up for this? Explaining what I do as an evaluator

Earlier this year, I read a blog post by Center for Evaluation Innovation director Julia Coffman, “Oh for the Love of Sticky Notes! The Changing Role of Evaluators Who Work with Foundations,” which honed in on the professional identity of the modern evaluator. A few days later, at the EERS conference, I chuckled at John Gargani ’s hilarious keynote segment on the ambiguity of the evaluator role and felt challenged by Chris Lysy’s declaration that anything complicated can be expressed in a simple way. These commentaries resonated enough that I was inspired to articulate my own experience as an evaluator.

Sometimes I feel like the characters Chandler and Tommy from the sitcoms Friends and Martin, respectively: Why is it so hard for people to understand what I do? Chandler and Tommy’s friends never understood (believed?) what they did, or where they went day in and day out — which provided running jokes on the shows.

Photo credits: Chandler and Tommy

Perhaps some jobs are inherently obscure for the general public. This must be why “evaluator” never appears on survey questions about occupation. Evaluators are typically forced to choose “researcher,” “social scientist,” or “other.” I understand that there is a rich tapestry of occupations, all of which cannot fit within the succinct confines of a survey question. But there are tens of thousands of us, just in the United States!

So, what is my work as an evaluator in the social sector, and how do I fit into the field?

What happens in the world of evaluation?

First and foremost, evaluation is a process of discovery. According to the American Evaluation Association, “Evaluation is a systematic process to determine merit, worth, value or significance.” Like researchers, we seek to answer questions. We are particularly interested in what and how questions. We seek to understand what is and what can be.

As consultants, we want to address the needs of our clients to the extent that they can meaningfully use the information that we provide to them. We provide feedback along the way, not only at the end of the project. The evaluation process, therefore, integrates and streamlines the research and consulting processes.

My organization works with clients to help them reach their goals and increase their impact in the social sector. Our clients have goals to improve educational equity, connect more individuals to family-sustaining employment, and change local systems to work better for disenfranchised communities. We use the evaluation process as our primary means of service delivery. The impact of what we do is limited by factors such as the scope of the work, unrecognized biases in our thinking, and insufficient capacity for clients and stakeholders to consume and implement evaluation recommendations.

Evaluators integrate diverse bodies of knowledge and varied skillsets to generate useful information. This is why we often work in teams. No one person is typically equipped to address all facets of an evaluation project. Along with that, the field of evaluation has changed over time with shifts in philanthropy. As Coffman notes, we have evolved from applied social science researchers to theorists, strategists, strategic communicators, systems thinkers, facilitators, coaches, and trainers.

At Equal Measure, we consider ourselves as “thought partners and leaders” as well, because we emphasize the role of dialogue with clients and stakeholders and the importance of disseminating good ideas to the public. Meg Long, Equal Measure president, has described our role as “weavers” of our collective knowledge and experiences to inform the products of our work.

How did I get here?

Like many evaluators, my path to evaluation has been a journey, resulting in multiple academic and professional experiences informing my work. Throughout my schooling, I have admired caring, committed, and talented teachers. When I was in high school, I decided to follow the path to classroom teaching. After earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, I spent four years in the classroom. Perhaps it was the INTJ in me,* but I decided to return to school to transition to applied research in education. I completed an interdisciplinary master’s degree that brought together spatial analysis, social science, and education. I secured an internship at a non-profit research and evaluation organization, and soon after was hired full-time. Many colleagues with whom I initially worked had doctorate degrees, and I wondered if that was a path I should follow. After four years in the field, I determined that expertise in organization development and leadership would support my professional growth in several ways and began a second master’s program. Today I enter my eighth year in the evaluation field (and two more grad courses to go!).

What I find the most meaningful about my work in the field of evaluation is the opportunity to continue learning and to support the learning of others. I enjoy understanding how things work and the process of discovery. I also appreciate the ability to provide useful information to people working hard to improve the life outcomes of individuals. I see my primary role as an evaluator as facilitating others’ learning and growth in ways that help them to do their work better. Not coincidentally, facilitation is a core skill in teaching, evaluation, and organization development and leadership.

Summing it up

Why did I sign up for this? Explaining evaluation, and my role within the profession, is an elevator speech I’m still refining. However, to boil it down, my work is about the process of discovering what is and what can be in the world around us. (So idealistic, I know!) As evaluators, we attempt to ask important questions, assemble puzzle pieces of information, generate themes, provide objective findings, and share information with people who can use it for good. Perhaps one day soon, our work will be more fully and widely understood. Our very own answer choice under “occupation” would be a strong sign of progress.

* INTJ stands for the introverted, intuition, thinking, and judging Myers-Brigg personality type. See Coffman’s piece for more details.

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