My name is Ben Reid. I am the founder of Impact Allies, a private evaluation firm. The focus of this post is on the business, rather than technical aspects, of evaluation. My purpose is to present a challenge to sustaining a private evaluation practice and best serving clients and propose an opportunity to overcome that challenge by collaborating within our community of practice.
Often evaluators act as one-person shows. It is important to give a single point of contact to a principal investigator (PI) and project team and for that evaluator of record to have thorough knowledge of the project and its partners. However, the many different jobs required of an evaluation contract simply cross too many specialties and personality types for one person to effectually serve a client best.
The first opportunity is to become more professionally aware of our strengths and weaknesses. What are your skills? And equally important, where are you skill-deficit (don’t know how to do it) and where are you performance-deficient (have the skill but aren’t suited for it—because of anxiety, frustration, no enthusiasm, etc.)?
The second opportunity is to build relationships within our community of practice. Get to know other evaluators, where their strengths are unique and whom they use for ancillary services (their book of contractors). (The upcoming NSF ATE PI conference is a great place to do this).
My Strengths: Any evaluator can satisfactorily perform the basics – EvaluATE certainly has done a tremendous job of educating and training us. In this field, I am unique in my strengths of external communications, opportunity identification and assessment, strategic and creative thinking, and partnership development. Those skills and a background in education, marketing and branding, and project management, have helped me contribute broadly, which has proven useful time and again when working with small teams. Knowing clients well and having an entrepreneurial mindset allows me to do what is encouraged in NSF’s 2010 User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation: “Certain evaluation activities can help meet multiple purposes, if used judiciously” (p. 119).
My Weaknesses: However, an area where I could use some outside support is graphic design and data visualization. This work, because it succinctly tells the story and successes of a project, is very important when communicating to multiple stakeholders, in published works, or for promotional purposes. Where I once performed these tasks (with much time and frustration and at a level which isn’t noteworthy), I now contract with an expert—and my clients are thereby better served.
“Focus on the user and all else will follow,” is the number one philosophy of Google, the company that has given us so much and in turn done so well for itself. Let us also focus on our clients, serving their needs by building our businesses where we are skilled and enthusiastic and collaborating (partnering, outsourcing, or referring) within our community of practice where another professional can do a better job for our clients.