A student came into my office to ask me a question. Soon after she launched into her query, I stopped her and said I wasn’t the right person to help because she was asking about a statistical method that I wasn’t up-to-date on. She said, “Oh, you’re a qualitative person?” And I answered, “Not really.” She left looking puzzled. The exchange left me pondering the vexing question, “What am I?” (Now imagine these words echoing off my office walls in a spooky voice for a couple of minutes.) After a few uncomfortable moments, I proudly concluded, “I am a critical thinker!”
Yes, evaluators are trained specialists with an arsenal of tools, strategies, and approaches for data collection, analysis, and reporting. But critical thinking—evaluative thinking—is really what drives good evaluation. In fact, the very definition of critical thinking as “the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion”1 describes the evaluation process to a T. Applying your critical, evaluative thinking skills in developing your funding proposal will go a long way toward ensuring your submission is competitive.
Make sure all the pieces of your proposal fit together like a snug puzzle. Your proposal needs both a clear statement of the need for your project and a description of the intended outcomes—make sure these match up. If you struggle with the outcome measurement aspect of your evaluation plan, go back to the rationale for your project. If you can observe a need or problem in your context, you should be able to observe the improvements as well. Show linkages between the need you intend to address, your activities and products, and expected outcomes.
Be logical. Develop a logic model to portray how your project will translate its resources into outcomes that address a need in your context. Sometimes simply putting things in a graphic format can reveal shortcomings in a project’s logical foundation (like when important outcomes can’t be tracked back to activities). The narrative description of your project’s goals, objectives, deliverables, and activities should match the logic model.
Be skeptical. Project planning and logic model development typically happen from an optimistic point of view. (“If we build it, they will come.”) While crafting your work plan, step back from time to time and ask yourself and your colleagues, what obstacles might we face? What could really mess things up? Where are the opportunities for failure? And perhaps most importantly, is this really the best solution to the need we’re trying to address? Identify your plan’s weaknesses and build in safeguards against those threats. I’m all for an optimistic outlook, but proposal reviewers won’t be wearing rose-colored glasses when they critique your proposal and compare it with others written by smart people with great ideas, just like you. Be your own worst critic and your proposal will be stronger for it.
Evaluative thinking doesn’t replace specialized training in evaluation. But even the best evaluator and most rigorous evaluation plan cannot compensate for a disheveled, poorly crafted project plan. Give your proposal a competitive edge by applying your critical thinking skills and infusing an evaluative perspective throughout your project description.