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Ask Nicole: How Can I Build My Evaluation Skills?

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Do you have a question that other Raise Your Voice community members can benefit from? Contact me and I’ll answer it!

Several weeks ago, I received the following email from a fellow program evaluator:

Hi Nicole,

I read your blog post, “Program Evaluation for Women and Girls of Color: How I Developed My Passion for Evaluation Practice,” and I was immediately drawn to it. I am an up and coming program evaluator who is fairly new to the field and still on a learning curve. I am struggling to figure out my place in the field, whether I belong here, and whether there are growth opportunities for me as an evaluator of color with a social equity, direct service, and light research background. A previous boss once told me that she didn’t believe I loved research, and didn’t see me as being an evaluator. While I agree that research isn’t my forte, there continues to be something that draws me to evaluation. I consider myself to be pragmatic and can get lost in big picture thinking, something researchers are good at. But, I believe in program accountability, neutrality in the presentation of information, and integrity. These are all elements that I believe evaluation brings to the table. I do wish to grow in my career, but at times I feel like giving up because I don’t yet know a lot about many things related to evaluation. Anyway, I’m happy to have come across your blog post because it provided some comfort in knowing that I am not the only one who has questioned her place in program evaluation. Your words are empowering!It would be great to speak with you further about your career trajectory in evaluation.What professional development opportunities would you recommend? How may I build up my evaluation skills? Looking forward to your response.

This was a really thoughtful question, and it’s great to hear from a fellow program evaluator of color!

Program evaluation is a rapidly changing field, and as you see, it’s exciting and daunting at the same time. Like you, I consider myself an up and coming evaluator, and I totally understand the feeling of not know all that one needs to know in order to get ahead in this field. I’ve come to find that, in my experience, you’ll always be on a learning curve because of emerging best practices, the latest research, and current trends. That’s what makes evaluation so exciting.

When I decided to develop a career in program evaluation, I began reading up on anything and everything related to program evaluation. And then I started to get overwhelmed. There’s so much to evaluation that it’s almost impossible to know everything. So, a recommendation I have for is to figure out what you want to develop your niche in, and build your skills in that, if possible. For example, I’m into participatory evaluation, empowerment evaluation, and evaluation theories that can be applied within racial, feminist, gender, and youth lenses. Elements such as logic models, quantitative and qualitative data collection, and the like are the basis for all evaluation theories, and I when I need to figure out how to run an analysis, or if I need additional help in looking for key themes in a qualitative data set, I’ll ask my colleagues. In other words, everything is (in the words of entrepreneur Marie Forleo, “figure-outable”).

While I think developing a niche is ideal, I understand that choosing an area of focus may tricky and dependent on your actual job duties. Are you good at running data sets, spotting the similarities, and comparing different kinds of variables? Do you like to help others run different data software, like SPSS, DataViz, and Excel? Do you like helping others present their data in a way that’s easy to understand and catered to the audience receiving the information? When I need to figure out a better or more interesting way to present my data, I like to turn to Stephanie Evergreen of Evergreen Data. In the blog portion of her website, she gives practice advice for how best to tailor your data presentation to your audience. Stephanie also runs Potent Presentations, which helps evaluators improve their presentation skills. When I need to figure out a better way to show my data in a bar chart or a graph or even participate in a DataViz challenge, I look to Ann Emery of Emery Evaluation. If I want to learn better ways on how to de-clutter my data, I like to read (and be entertained by) Chris Lysy of freshspectrum.  Also, if I want to gain more insights on building an independent evaluation consultant business, I refer to Gail Barrington of Barrington Research Group.

When it comes to professional development and skills building, here are some places to get started:

Professional Membership

American Evaluation Association: I’m sure AEA needs no introduction, as they are the top source for professional development, jobs, consultant opportunities, and skills building  for evaluators in the United States and beyond. They offer paid and free trainings, including Coffee Break, a 20-minute webinar by a leading evaluator on a topic of choice, and eStudy, which are longer, more in-depth courses in a variety of evaluation topics. AEA also offers the Summer Evaluation Institute with the Centers for Disease Control, It focuses more on evaluation from health perspective, but I feel that the workshops lend themselves to a variety of settings. I attended the institute prior to enrolling in graduate school (and I still have my participant folder that I refer to!) The institute is geared towards evaluators at the beginning stages of their practice, as well as for seasoned evaluators looking for refresh their skills. There’s also the annual evaluation conference. The AEA 2014 annual conference takes place October 15-18. I’m looking forward to attending, as this will be my first time attending this conference. My favorite part of AEA are the Topical Interest Groups (TIGs). You can connect with others who share your interests. A few of the groups I’ve been part are in independent consultant TIG, multi-ethnic issues in evaluation TIG, and the social work TIG. There are also AEA affiliates nationwide that you can connect with outside of AEA. Last but not least, check out AEA 365, AEA’s daily blog that highlights tips, lessons, learned, and resources from evaluators. There’s so much information on the AEA, it’s easy to become overwhelm. Just pick a section and read more in depth.

Websites & Blogs

Along with AEA, check out Potent Presentations and Better Evaluation. Both are great sites for learning about different evaluation concepts and theories, as well as best practices for tailoring your data to need the needs of your audience. As I’ve mentioned, definitely check out Emery Evaluation, Evergreen Data, freshspectrum, AEA 365, and the Barrinton Research Group. Two additional resources are Eval Central, a collection of 50+ evaluation blogs on one site, and The Listening Resource, a blog full of information on qualitative data collection and analysis. I also have a Pinterest board of evaluation resources I’ve created.

Books

Gail Barrington’s book Consulting Start-Up and Management is so good! I believe I’ve highlighted and outlined in this book more than any book I had in grad school. I also am looking forward to getting my hands on Stephanie Evergreen’s book Presenting Data Effectively, Kim Sabo Flores’ book Youth Participatory Evaluation: Strategies for Engaging Young People, and The Program Evaluation Standards: A Guide for Evaluators and Evaluation Users by Donald Yardbrough, Lyn Shuldha, and Rodney Hopson.

People

Along with the greater evaluators already mentioned, definitely read more about George Mason University professor Rodney Hopson, Dominica McBride of Become, Inc., Jara Dean Coffey of JDC Partnetships, evaluator Michael Quinn Patterson, empowerment evaluation guru David Patterson, Karen Anderson of On Top of the Box Evaluation, and one of my Columbia University School of Social Work professors, Rogerio Pinto. I’m making sure to mention evaluators of color as it’s always great to connect online and offline.

Social Media

Twitter is always a great way to connect with other evaluators. I tend to use the hash tags #eval, #evaluation #dataviz . I have a list of evaluators I like to follow on Twitter, and you can check out the fellow AEA evaluator Twitter users. Also, to connect with more women of color, follow the hash tag #WOC.

Volunteering

Last but not least, one of the better ways I’ve found for building my evaluation skills has been through volunteering my time. I mention here how I’ve offered to conduct evaluations for organizations and groups I have an intimate connection with (serve on the board of directors, advisory group, etc.). You get to not only build your skills and portfolio, but you can also gain references and testimonials.

RAISE YOUR VOICE: What are some of your favorite evaluation resources?

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