Evaluation goes hand-in-hand with good planning—and so, good implementation. To plan well, you need to know the areas of priority needs (a good needs assessment is critical and often the backbone of planning with efficient use of resources!), and to implement well, you need to know about both process and outcomes. It’s not usually enough in our complex world to simply claim an outcome—the first question after that is usually, “how did you accomplish that?” Evaluations that are more integrated with both planning and implementation can better address those questions and support a strong organizational learning agenda.
Often in areas of grant-funded operations, evaluators are asked to come in pretty late in the process—to provide evaluation of a program or intervention already in action, after funding and programming has occurred. While this form of evaluation is possible and can be important, we find it better to be consulted on the front end of planning and grant writing. Our expertise is often helpful to our clients in connecting their specific needs with the resources they seek, through the most effective processes that can then lead to the outcomes they seek. Evaluation can become the “connecting tissue” between resources and outcomes, needs and processes, and activities and outcomes. Evaluation and planning are iterative partners—continuing to inform each other throughout the history of a project.
We often use tools such as logic modeling and the development of a theory of action or change to identify and articulate the most important elements of the equation. By identifying these components for program planners and articulating the theory of action, evaluation planning also assists in illustrating good project planning!
Evaluation provides the iterative planning and reflection process that is the hallmark of good programming and effective and efficient use of resources. Consider viewing evaluation more holistically—and resist the more narrow definition of evaluation as something that comes at the end of planning and implementation efforts!
By including the requirement for integrated evaluation in their requests for proposals (RFPs), grant funders can help project staff write better proposals for funding, and once funded, help to assure better planning toward achieving goals. Foundations such as W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a number of more local funders, for example the Heinz Endowments, the Grable Foundation, and FISA Foundation in our own region of southwestern Pennsylvania, have come to recognize these needs. The Common Guidelines for Education Research and Development, published in 2013 and used by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation to advise research efforts, identifies the need for gathering and making meaning from evidence in all aspects of change endeavors, including evaluation.
In this 2015 International Year of Evaluation, let’s further examine how we use evaluation to inform all of the aspects of our work, with evaluation, planning and implementation as a seamless partnership!