Driscoll’s ‘What?’, ‘So What?’ and ‘Now What?’ Model of Reflection (1994) is my favourite definition of what evaluation is and why it matters. I like this definition because it is short, but also because it stresses the point that evaluation is ultimately about asking practical questions. It is also about the things that really matter in the social world. For example, if we run a programme to help unemployed young people find work there will be some important questions that we want to answer: ‘Did it make a difference?’, ‘What worked well and what didn’t?’, ‘Did it have any unintended side effects?’, ‘Is it a sustainable or scalable solution?’ etc.
This is not to say that evaluation is always straightforward, or easy – it is often not, but it is important, and not just to funders (honest!). High demand for services, limited funding (and time) and complexity can all push evaluation down the agenda. Here are five reasons why it should stay near the top:
Ultimately our work in the social sector is about people. They matter, their wellbeing matters, and helping people in need is why charities and social enterprises exist. Evaluation helps us to answer the fundamental question as to whether the support services we are providing are making a positive difference in their lives (or not).
Organisations that are socially-motivated and mission-driven are accountable to the people they exist to support. They are also accountable to funders, donors, regulators (e.g. Charities Commission) and to the wider public. ‘Are you making a difference?’, ‘How are you spending our money?’ etc. are legitimate questions that socially-motivated organisations need to be able to answer.
What works, for whom, and under what circumstances? Social challenges tend to be complex, with specific groups of people needing specific, targeted support. Evaluation can provide deeper insights into what works, and what makes effective practice, both for individual organisations and for the wider social sector. This understanding can help us improve the quality and appropriateness of the support we provide.
The social challenges are often huge, the resources (inc. time and money) are limited. As a socially-focused organisation do you know if you are using these precious resources efficiently, effectively and equitably? This is not only about looking back on what you have done (lagging indicators), but also making sure you have the right information in time to respond to what is happening and make changes (leading indicators)
These along with externalities can often occur when intervening in complex social systems. E.g. a programme designed to help non-internet users get online, might accidently expose vulnerable users to risks such as online scams, cyberbullying, etc. How confident are we that the positive impact of our work is not being outweighed by negative consequences that we had not foreseen?
Evaluation has become a specialised discipline, and the subject of conferences, qualifications and careers. However, it is very important that evaluation does not end up as an isolated activity. It should not exist in its own organisational silo, or become a responsibility farmed out entirely to consultants and research agencies. Evaluation cuts to the core questions of why socially-motivated and mission-drive organisations exist, i.e. are we really helping the people that we exist to support? Evaluation is everyone’s responsibility and should be embedded across all of our organisations and activities.