An image of a beautifully decorated cake with a caption of the article's title "Relationships, Words, and Cake: Takeaways from #Eval19"

With the American Evaluation Conference happening right in our backyard this year, The Improve Group had a strong presence, from presenting at sessions, to co-sponsoring Topical Interest Group (TIG) socials, to hosting our improv party Friday night—thanks to everyone who came! As we made our way around sessions (and on that long trek back-and-forth between the hotel and convention center), we percolated on a couple themes that came up in addition to the declared conference theme, “Paths to the future of evaluation” …

Relationships matter. In one of The Improve Group’s presentations, about building out a winning team, we co-presented with Scout Black of Smith & Lehmann Consulting. Scout and The Improve Group’s team partnered to conduct a strengths and needs assessment of Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ communities. Our team’s relationship with Scout led to stronger data collection and a more useful final product. For example, in this presentation, we discussed the value of both “insider” and “outsider” knowledge: as a member of one of Omaha’s LGBTQIA+ communities, Scout brought insider knowledge in the form of familiarity with and connections to the community. Meanwhile, Amy Cyr, The Improve Group’s lead on the project, brought outsider knowledge, which provided her “the power of ‘Help me understand,’” as she explained at the conference. This external perspective creates openings to ask stakeholders key questions.

Another time relationships came up as important was in an IG presentation on trust-building as a critical skill, when our own Nick Stilp explained the “trust triangle.” The three points of the triangle—logic, empathy, and authenticity—function as a three-legged stool: without any of them, trust collapses. We incorporate this as we build relationships with clients, each other, and the stakeholders of our work.

Words. The importance of language came up over and over again. Whether it’s what you say when facilitating a focus group or the words we use around our organizations, the importance of being thoughtful about how your message is being received was something that permeated AEA. One of my favorite ideas came from Jara Dean-Coffey at an invaluable session called “Reflections from Evaluators of Color.” Stop using “soft skills” to distinguish expertise in consulting and relationship building from technical evaluation skills, she said—this diminishes critical skills. And, rather than saying “lived experience,” she said, let’s start saying lived “expertise”—because that is what it is. This was one nugget from Engage R+D research into the experiences of evaluators of color—look out for the full research report next year! Another interesting session considered how we describe evaluation – noting that the lack of consistency might be impacting our recruitment to the field.

Cake! One of my favorite ideas of the conference came from an attendee of The Improve Group’s think tank on trust-building (see above). An evaluator shared how their organization printed its logic model on a sheet cake for stakeholders to celebrate data culture. With IG’s love of both food and logic models, I was sure to write that idea down! Cake also came up in a session on facilitating focus groups with underserved groups, where the Public Health Institute’s Rebecca Garrow told the Betty Crocker yellow cake story about focus groups. While my post-conference research shows this myth has been debunked, it certainly proved a point about focus groups! Plus, let’s not forget the deliciousness of Angel Food Bakery cupcakes, where a group of IGers and friends was sure to stop after a Friday AEA meetup lunch at Hell’s Kitchen.