Graphic image of the article's title: "Better Together: Approaching Evaluation as Equals" by Claire Stoscheck

One important aspect of our work that I am constantly reminded of is how creating space for clients to contribute their specialized knowledge leads to innovation and great ideas in evaluation projects.

We are currently working with the Lincoln Park Children and Families Collaborative (LPCFC) to build its capacity to evaluate the healthy spaces it is developing in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota. The Collaborative is integrating Commercial Tobacco Free Zones with spaces that inspire and facilitate healthy eating and physical activity for a wraparound healthy experience for community members.

From the start, the Collaborative’s executive director, who has evaluation experience, emphasized the community expertise among staff – we took this as our cue to design a capacity-building workshop in a way to maximize that knowledge. We provided basic evaluation training that included hands-on activities, followed by co-creation of data collection methods that were inclusive of the many diverse perspectives. Through thoughtful facilitation, staff were able to provide rich and relevant ideas, like including photo-stories as a data collection method, and adding the evaluation question of how a community defines health for itself. The cultural and experiential expertise that LPCFC staff and volunteers brought to the table was synergistic with the technical expertise of The Improve Group.

Together, we created interactive surveys for youth with methods like dot voting, and identified well-attended weekly dinners as a possible strategy for data collection – again, tapping into the local knowledge of program staff. In this way, we all benefited with a better evaluation based on shared knowledge. In the fall, we will do another capacity-building workshop together, this time focused on participatory data analysis.

LPCFC is becoming infused with an evaluative culture, as highly engaged staff members realize more ways they can use their community expertise. When communities build their own evaluation and research skills, they can more easily design and implement evaluations and research projects that answer key questions emerging from their own communities.

The LPCFC project is a great demonstration of how people who aren’t evaluators can be just as passionate about evaluation. To create that culture of collaboration – especially in evaluating culturally-specific programs – it is crucial to approach projects as equals, understanding that clients bring information that is as valuable – or more – as the tools we bring as professional evaluators. Along the way, we as evaluators can learn very applicable skills from our clients – a humbling reminder.