This is part one in a four-part series on program evaluation, dedicated to organizations and businesses that provide programs and services for women, girls, and communities of color (and for people with an interest in evaluation practice). Throughout this month, I will be discussing certain aspects of evaluation practice –from how I became interested in evaluation, myths about evaluation, knowing what type of evaluation to perform, and bringing your community together to support evaluation – with the intent on highlighting the importance of evaluation not just from a funding perspective, but from an accountability and empowerment perspective.
Outside of being a licensed social worker and an activist, what’s lesser known about me is that I’m a program evaluator. In fact, program design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation are the focal point of my consulting business, and it’s what I studied primarily in my social work graduate program.
Admittedly, evaluation doesn’t sound as trendy compared to activism or even social work. It just sounds like a bunch of data collection and analysis, meetings with staff and stakeholders, presenting evaluation findings, and writing reports. Tedious and boring stuff that not many people pay attention to. (These are also key components of evaluation practice, and I’ll speak more about them in next week’s post.)
I’ve also noticed that when I talk about aspects of my work, I lightly touch on evaluation because most audiences I’ve spoken to have been more interested in the social work or activist side of me. So, to start off this series, I wanted to share with you how I got started in evaluation practice, what I enjoy most about it, how having a sound evaluation practice can lead to more funding and community support for your programs and services, and how it’s the glue that holds together my love for social work, activism, and working with women and girls of color. With this series, I’m giving program evaluation the spotlight it deserves.
First, I Needed a Job
I graduated from college in the Spring of 2006, and like most recent college graduates, I needed a job. With a Bachelor’s degree in psychology, I wasn’t having much luck in finding entry-level work that didn’t require going immediately into graduate school. I also wanted to build my skills in reproductive health, rights, and justice work. I went on multiple interviews that were either psychology focused or reproductive health focused, and I was deemed not qualified enough or I had too much experience in one over the other (mainly more in reproductive health).
One of my mentors, Dr. Carla Stokes, would routinely send job announcements my way that she believed I had enough experience in. One of those job announcements was for a graduate research assistant position with the Prevention Research Center (PRC) of the Morehouse School of Medicine. With job duties like data collection, survey development, focus group facilitation, data entry and analysis, and literature reviews, I figured I would be a shoo-in. What stood out to me was that the PRC has a reputation for having a strong voice in communities of color and on aspects of health that I was already well versed in during my time as an activist on my college campus, such as HIV prevention and working with youth.
I Was Bored Out of My Mind…
I started working for the PRC in April 2007 on a part-time basis, under the supervision of Dr. Tabia Henry Akintobi. I spent my days conducting literature reviews, learning about logic models, revising and administering surveys, and editing evaluation reports. I had gotten to the point where I could use statistical analysis software like SPSS in my sleep, oftentimes entering data looking solely at the survey responses and knowing which key to stroke that would correspond to the participant’s response. I knew participant ID numbers by heart on quantitative data and became more efficient in identifying key themes in participant responses when I would assist with focus groups and other qualitative research designs.
But I was bored out of my mind. I struggled with looking at my surveys and seeing that they weren’t completely filled out. I became overwhelmed when I would be assisting with a focus group in which the discussions weren’t going as planned and I didn’t have the skills to bring everyone back into focus. I was beginning to feel that the people who had completed my surveys, and the people who participated in focus groups or stakeholder interviews were just nameless entities whose sole purpose was fill up the pages of an evaluation report that no one would read. What is the point of evaluation if no one bothers to read the findings and implement any of the recommendations? What is the point of evaluation if it’s met with sighs and shudders because of the myth that it’s going to make or break your funding sources? What is the point of evaluation if no one feels that it will even make a difference? I was started to feel that evaluation was the most non-exciting thing to people working in community organizations and nonprofits, who are more interested in being on-the-ground and out in the community.
…And Becoming Increasingly Frustrated
In the last several years, there have been many community organizations and nonprofits that have closed their doors due to lack of funding and community support. In this same vein, there are many community organizations and nonprofits that are creating programs and services to reach a certain demographic and are left to wonder why they aren’t getting the results they are looking for. Or if a program or service is implemented, there’s no rationale behind why it’s being implemented other than it being what is currently “in” at the moment. Or even if it’s a program or service that has a viable need, it’s not tailored to fit the needs of the program’s target demographic.
It hurts even more when I see that many of these organizations no longer in existence are organizations that served women, girls, or communities of color. You’re writing grants and are awarded funding, knowing that at any given moment it can be taken away. You’re tasked to carry out an evaluation and you don’t know where to begin. You lack the staff capacity needed to carry out an evaluation, or you want to build the capacity and are leery of hiring an external evaluator or don’t have the money in your budget to hire an internal evaluation staff member. When the evaluation is finally completed, you’re disappointed because the results you receive aren’t what you were expecting, and now you have to report it to your stakeholders and your funders. You’re trying to meet the expectations of the people you’re serving and also the expectations of your stakeholders and funders, and you feel that you’re at the mercy of an entity that can end your organization’s work, especially if a good portion of your funding comes from a primary source. It doesn’t have to be that way.
…Until I Made the Connection!
I enrolled in the Columbia University School of Social Work in Fall 2008 into the school’s Advanced Generalist Practice and Programming (AGPP) method, a method geared towards a more holistic and well-rounded approach to social work. I wasn’t interested in pursuing clinical social work, and while I had an interest in policy and administration, I was drawn to the ability to move freely among multiple areas of social work while not being tied down to one area of focus.
Once I got my foundation courses out of the way and began to focus more on my AGPP courses, I started to gain a vast interest in needs assessments, grant writing, and designing simple evaluation projects, so much so that I started to ask myself, “How can I apply what I’m learning within the social justice framework? How can I help more organizations that serve women, girls, and communities of color to control how funders, donors, and communities view their work?”
Outside of my course work, I worked with Dr. Rogério Pinto on a form of participatory evaluation via their community collaborative board (CCB) study. Instead of working in direct practice, my clients were executive directors of community organizations, academic researchers, community activists, and members of the Harlem community that were infected and affected by HIV, poverty, and substance use. I played a small part in that project, which is now the Interagency Collaboration Implementation (ICI), but I was always excited to attend the CCB meetings, to interview the consumers, providers, and managers involved with the study, and to see participatory evaluation at work. Outside of that, I also read more about empowerment evaluation and how to add a gender analysis lens to my evaluation studies.
Everything I had learned while at the PRC was beginning to make more sense to me. I saw what evaluation practice, if done thoughtfully and with the means to empower and not promote a sense of dread, can do to highlight the work that organizations, community groups, and nonprofits are already doing. What began as a way to earn money while applying for graduate school has turned into the basis of my consulting business.
Evaluation is like a road map designed to help your organization see how far it’s come and where it’s headed. I see evaluation as an extension of my work as an activist for women and girls of color and for reproductive justice. While the speaking portion of my work is geared towards all audiences (and mainly around social work related topics and sexual health and reproductive justice), evaluation is the reason why I made a conscious decision to focus the evaluation portion of my business solely on organizations and agencies that are provide a program or service for women and girls of color.
I want to see more quality in these programs and services because it’s what’s needed in the community, and not because women and girls of color are the trending thing to focus on. I want to show more of these organizations and their participants the value of knowing how to evaluate a program or service, how to determine the needs of a demographic, and what matters most to women and girls of color in their communities. I want to help more organizations take control over how their work is viewed, and I want them to be highly compensated for it, through community support, funding, donations, and quality participation from their participants.
Get Ready for Part Two
Hopefully this provided an insight into the structure of Nicole Clark Consulting and why evaluation is a major component of my work. In Part Two, I share some common misconceptions about evaluation and how to work through them. If what I’ve shared so far piques your interest, check out my consulting services page and contact me to see how we can work together to take your program or service to the next level.