Trends in Impact Evaluation That Can Work in Your Favor
Trends in evaluation are worth paying attention to. They may not take over your social media feed with witty memes or become the latest office buzz, but they are profoundly important for nonprofits. After all, with impact being the core business of organizations seeking social good, any changes in how one assesses and communicates this impact can have significant implications for time and resources spent, staff and donor engagement — not to mention the ability to improve programs.
Some of these trends have been building for some time; others are relatively recent, but collectively they spell an environment that is more conducive for nonprofits to set the terms of results measurement in ways that can increase effectiveness, make the work more meaningful and less taxing, and engage donors.
Increased Emphasis on Data-Driven Social Change
While hardly a recent trend, there is increasing focus on data for accountability for social impacts. Advancements in technology have also led to greater ease and more options in collecting, storing and analyzing data.
Racial Reckoning in Evaluation
As in so many other areas, a racial reckoning is shedding light on ways in which the practice of evaluation privileges certain viewpoints, analytic and epistemic lenses, and people groups. Whose opinions counts, who sets the metrics and how change is measured are being reassessed as this reckoning unfolds. Consider, for example, the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, which has created an equitable evaluation framework to uproot inequity and embed equity within evaluation practice.
Reassessing Underlying Paradigms and Rethinking Rigor
Increasingly, nonprofits realize that the disadvantaged populations they serve must have a strong say in program design and execution. This implies that results measurement must move from an outsider (etic) perspective of social science research to an insider (emic) perspective.
The latter positions the evaluator as a co-learner and co-agent within the groups creating change — be those groups smallholder farmers or formerly incarcerated persons. This aligns with calls for a rethinking of what is considered rigor in research design (opens as a pdf), to focus less on quantitative and experimental research designs that can be blind to the complexities of social change, and more on incorporating other factors, such as systems-awareness, cultural appropriateness and co-construction of meaning with disadvantaged communities.
What if we reimagined evaluation as an opportunity for funders to learn and evolve as stewards, rather than taking on the narrow — and virtually impossible — task of proving that limited grants make a measurable impact on longstanding, complex social issues?
(In)appropriate Application of Impact Evaluation
There is growing recognition that impact evaluation — though necessary for providing rigorous evidence on the comparative good of interventions — is costly, difficult to administer and, often, unnecessary. Examples where alternative approaches can be sought include where data about the viability of a given approach already exists and where it is cost-prohibitive or otherwise impossible to do impact evaluation well.
An Expanded Toolbox for Measuring Systems Change
It used to be that organizations looking to pick up signals of change in realms outside of their project — system-level change — had a limited set of methods to use. Some might have tried outcome mapping or harvesting, or used developmental evaluation; more often than not, such changes went unmeasured. Now, there is a wider set of methodological options, each specialized for certain functions, such as tracing how the organization’s efforts might have contributed to a policy or influence win. A few examples are ripple effect mapping, outcome harvesting, sentinel indicators, process tracing and the what else test.
Being aware of these trends is a first step for nonprofits seeking to align their results measurement efforts more closely with their mission and goals, while demonstrating accountability to those who fund and partner with them. In addition, these trends present an exciting new prospect — that nonprofits can extend an invitation to donors to learn alongside them and, in this way, serve less as overseers and more as co-travelers through an often mystifying yet invariably fascinating change landscape.
Malaika Cheney-Coker is the founder and principal of Ignited Word, a consulting firm dedicated to helping nonprofits increase their impact through creativity. She delights in the kaleidoscope of ideas that is creativity as well as the analytic thinking and research that partner with those ideas for effective social change. With experience in both the U.S. and international nonprofit arena, she works across a range of subject matter areas, including evaluation and organizational learning, thought leadership, coalition building, and organizational creativity.