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This is probably the most common question you’ll hear about evaluation practice. Because I’m asked this question often, I would like to given my take on it.

To start, there are several differences between research and evaluation. Evaluation is a systematic way of figuring out how effective your programs and services are, and if the desired outcomes of the program/service line up with what participants are experiencing. You can do this in a variety of ways, including surveys, focus groups, interviews, and more. Evaluation can inform key stakeholders (which can include legislators, program participants, funders, nonprofit staff, etc.) how sustainable your program or service is.

In comparison, research is designed to seek new knowledge about a behavior or phenomenon and focuses on the methods of getting to that new knowledge (hypothesis, independent/dependent variables, etc.). In other words, research wants to know if a particular variable caused a particular effect (causation). Once testing is done, researchers can make research recommendations and publish their findings. However, one of the key differences between research and evaluation is that conducting an evaluation can lead to insights in what’s going well and what can be improved. In other words, evaluation shows how valuable your program or service is.

Researchers collect data, present results and draw conclusions that link to some empirical data.  While evaluators also do this, evaluators also examine how the data collected aligns with the program’s proposed benchmarks of how the program is expected to perform. So, while evaluators make conclusions that reflect the collected data, evaluators also assist is determining the value of program so they can help improve it. Evaluators don’t just leave you in the dark about how to improve your program (or at least they shouldn’t).

To summarize, evaluation 1) focuses on a program or services while research focuses on a population; 2) focuses on improving a program by examining all the pieces to determine if the desired results are being actualized while research focuses on causation while research’s main focus is on proving a hypothesis; 3) focuses on value (and how to get the value expected) while research is free of determining value; and 4) is no better or worse than research. In fact, they’re both useful to programs and services to not only improve them but to also get a benchmark on how populations respond to certain factors.

To put it simply, here’s an illustration on research vs. evaluation by Chris Lysy of Fresh Spectrum:


(image courtesy)

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