Learning to See Clearly

Jamie Clearfield's Musings on Evaluation and Development


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Thinking about the What and the Why: Explaining Evaluation to Others

As I go further into thinking of myself and calling myself an evaluator, I am having the talk with more and more people. “So what is it that you do exactly?” Thinking about these conversations and building off of Chris Lysy’s brilliant cartoons, I have found explaining what evaluation is and why it is important to be two separate but equally interesting (and at times challenging) conversations. For those in the field, you know this can be quite a long and involved answer to describe the data analysis, writing, critical and systems thinking, technical innovation, instrument development, counseling, mentoring, facilitating, capacity-building, learning, researching, and many other things that comprise our day to day life. Sometimes the work is slow, and sometimes chaotic. You push way overtime on one project to find yourself with rewrites and revisions that you simply don’t have time for. Developing strong relationships and building trust with clients, particularly smaller organizations is a dance of uncertainty – one step forward, two steps back, shuffle left and hopefully bound forward. For external evaluators, we are also always grappling with the ever present conflict of interest of providing clear, rational information that our clients may not necessary want or be ready to hear, and trying to do so in a way so they’ll listen and perhaps even hear what we’re saying. What we do as evaluators is ever changing, dynamic, important, real.

Thus explaining the what of what we do as evaluators is complicated. However I have found that getting across the what is perhaps more challenging than the why of evaluation. Those of us who fall into the field, through whichever path, continue to work and improve skills because we believe that evaluation is one among many tools to helping others, making our world a little bit easier to understand, and getting close to, even if not completely, right. Explaining the why perhaps is easier because it is so deeply connected to what I believe and it is the passion behind our craft that comes through even in the midst of lengthy explanations and discussions. For so many in the field, evaluation makes as much sense to us as looking both ways before crossing the street, it is engrained in our thinking, our actions, our day to day lives. Evaluation is a pathway to improvement and growth, not just for programming but for organizations and individuals. The why of evaluation is the passion behind our craft, and it is the knowledge and curiosity that something amazing may already exist, and if not, that the potential is there. The why of evaluation is in the belief in hope.

I am relatively new to the evaluation field (and even more recently begun thinking of myself as an evaluator, but that’s another future post), and make no claim to being an expert. However I do know from my work overseas and domestically, people are drawn to and can find common ground with those who are passionate and genuine with their craft, regardless of the language barrier. And so, as I learn and grown and develop within evaluation, and as I have more and more discussions about what it is I do exactly, I am learning to start with explaining the why.  For it is in the why that I am finding that the moment of connection is made, the essence understood.

Thoughts, comments? How do you describe what you do as an evaluator? Contribute below!