The Time is Now to Embed Equity in Evaluation Practices

Jara Dean-Coffey

At the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, we believe that evaluators in the philanthropic sector have a moral imperative to design and implement evaluations that contribute to equity. This can happen by:

  1. Answering critical questions about the effect of a strategy on different populations and on the structural drivers of inequity, as well as examining the ways in which cultural context is tangled up in both the structural conditions and the change initiative itself;  
  2. Designing and implementing evaluations in a way that is commensurate with the values underlying equity work: multiculturally valid and oriented toward participant ownership.  

Conversations with nonprofits, communities, foundations, and even consultants continue to reflect mixed feelings about evaluation. Findings from research by Innovation NetworkCenter for Evaluation Innovation, CEP, and others are consistent: evaluation as currently practiced is not serving us well. It’s time to stop tweaking and start from someplace new — so we can reach someplace new. 

We reject singular solutions to this need for improved evaluation. Instead we have an invitation for your consideration rooted in three principles:

Principle 1: Evaluation and evaluative work should be in service of equity

Production, consumption, and management of evaluation and evaluative work should hold at its core a responsibility to advance progress towards equity. 

Principle 2: Evaluative work can and should answer critical questions about the following:
  • The ways in which historical and structural decisions have contributed to the condition to be addressed;
  • Effect of a strategy on different populations;
  • Effect of a strategy on the underlying systemic drivers of inequity;
  • Ways in which cultural context is tangled up in both the structural conditions and the change initiative itself.
Principle 3: Evaluative work should be designed and implemented commensurate with the values underlying equity work: 
  • Multiculturally valid;
  • Oriented toward participant ownership.

The word “equity” in our name speaks to the world in which we want to live AND a desire for a more accurate and complex understanding of and commitment to validity — one that is appropriate for the 21st century endeavors in which many foundations and nonprofits are engaged.

The Opportunity

The origins of research and evaluation are grounded primarily in a scientific model that creates an illusion of objectivity and neutrality in which the nature of things and reality are deemed to be singularly true (Aliyu, 2014). That truth in the U.S. has been shaped by a dominant (translation — white) framing that preferences singularity over multiplicity, numbers over words, and generalizability over nuance. It states that the sociopolitical nature of things (or people) has no influence over the nature of what is (or what is not).

This paradigm, known as positivism, stems from a time when the values that many nonprofits, foundations, and consultants now make explicit (such as equity, cultural responsiveness, and equality) were not considered. (And if they were considered, they were not thought to be applicable to research and evaluative practice.)  

We believe it is time to redefine how we conceptualize data, knowledge, truth, and evidence so they are multiculturally valid and reflect multiple truths. With regard to the practice of evaluation, we believe it can no longer hide behind the notion of neutrality, but must rather take a moral stand in service of equity. There is too much at stake for evaluation not to be in service of something more than knowledge. 

Imagine what might be possible if we collectively conceptualized, implemented, and utilized evaluation in a manner that is consistent with and promotes equity. We could shine light on the historical, contextual, and powerful dynamics that create and sustain oppression and lift up strategies and solutions that can shift the “rules of the game” so that equity is achievable. We want to ensure that individuals, communities, and peoples not only share equitably in the knowledge, wealth, and resources of society, but all contribute to the creation of those elements as well.

The Invitation

Evaluation exists in an ecosystem comprised of various players situated in community and context. In this ecosystem, philanthropy is a primary purchaser and user of evaluation. It drives the supply (e.g., consultants/evaluators) and can also influence the thinking and behaviors of the demand (its grantees and partners).

The current evaluation paradigm includes definitions and expectations for validity, rigor, bias, and objectivity that honors particular types of knowledge, evidence, and truth. It seeks to simplify, codify, and de-contextualize the work. It looks for generalizable and scaled data and findings that often feel disconnected from and not reflective of values, or not relevant to the needs of the nonprofit and community partners with which many foundations work. 

As a consequence, nonprofits and communities have negative (even traumatic) reactions to traditional evaluation practice. It is not lost on them that evaluation is often an exercise of extraction with little return for them other than a narrative that describes them as less than x or in need of y.

We believe and are committed to changing this reality.

Foundations have the ability to shift and influence the way in which evaluation is “used” with communities and nonprofits.  Funders, the journey to a new paradigm begins (but does not end) with you. Equitable evaluation is an opportunity for all of us to challenge norms in philanthropy and its partners (nonprofits, philanthropy-supporting organizations, consultants, etc.) in regard to acceptable evaluation practice that reflects and is in service of equity.

As stated earlier, many current evaluation practices continue to perpetuate narratives dictated by one voice that quells the voices of many others. One implication of this is that people of color and others traditionally marginalized are prevented from having agency, authority, and accurate presentation (and representation) in the numbers and words that tell their stories of social conditions, success, failures, and learnings.   

Funders, our invitation to you is to consider the following when engaging in your work:

  • Reimagine the purpose and practice of evaluation to reflect the values that drive philanthropy.
  • Interrogate the ways in which your strategic and programmatic values manifest in your evaluative practices.
  • When selecting evaluation or learning partners, ask yourself, “How are we exploring the values that these individuals are bringing to the work?”
  • If and when you think about validity, ask yourself, “What criteria are we using? In what ways does it reflect the complexity of our strategy?”

What we have before us is an evolutionary opening. While others may see this opening as a provocation, we see it as an invitation. Regardless of how you see it, this is a unique moment in time to bring evaluation into alignment with the intentions of many of us who seek to transform our world into one that places equity at its core.

Jara Dean-Coffey is the founder and principal of Luminare Group (formally jdcPartnerships) and director of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative. Follow Jara on Twitter at @JDeanCoffey or connect with her on LinkedIn. For emerging learning and updates on how EEI’s work is unfolding, subscribe to its monthly newsletter.

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