Gathering the perspectives and interests of a full range of stakeholders may be thought of as something nice to have during an evaluation. In fact, it’s a guiding standard of evaluation and therefore essential to the evaluation process throughout all of its stages.
While it may seem like additional effort and time when both can feel like they are in short supply, embedding stakeholder engagement into our evaluation plan shows we’re serious about our evaluation efforts. It can have a positive influence on how an evaluation is planned and delivered as well as how it’s perceived by our community. It has the additional benefit of building our collective capacity in evaluation. It gives us the opportunity to flex our evaluative thinking muscles through dialogue, reflection, challenging assumptions and providing feedback.
Start together learn together
One of the first steps in evaluation planning and design is determining what our organization wants to learn from an evaluation. Identifying evaluation goals together with stakeholders can build buy-in for the evaluation activities that follow. Doing this also tends to increase the breadth of the evaluation which in turn helps to ensure the results will be used for a wider range of purposes. By igniting this shared interest during the formative stages of our evaluation efforts, our stakeholders can be our biggest champions. It signals that we intend to authentically engage with people who care about our work, and acknowledges that they play a role in helping us learn and grow from our evaluation.
So, who should we engage and how do we engage them?
One of the strongest reasons to include stakeholders in our evaluation is so we get a wider lens on what is most important for us to learn. From our position within our organization, we’re sure to have our own ideas about what we would gain from an evaluation, but what about others who also have a stake in our organization’s success? A board member would likely have a different take on what they would like to learn from the evaluation. So too would front-line staff, volunteers or program managers. Then there are funders, donors and service recipients. What would they want to know from our evaluation? Having a diversity of perspectives around the evaluation table can bring new insights and can also help to troubleshoot potential challenges during the evaluation process.
People in the roles mentioned above are all good sources from which to begin to build an evaluation team. We can also develop our list of potential candidates by thinking of people from the following groups:
- Those with deep expertise in the topic area in which we work or who are well-respected for their work in similar programs
- Those with diverse perspectives or experiences that may be under-represented in the day to day course of program or organizational interactions
- Those who have responsibility for managing or delivering the program
- Individuals who hold a position of influence in this area – including policy-makers, politicians, funders
In addition, we can gather suggestions from existing stakeholders about who else they think should be involved. We can also consider anyone who is a champion of evaluation. Their involvement can help to generate buy-in for the evaluation design and implementation.
Finding a balance of perspectives
Once a list of stakeholders has been developed, it can be helpful if we prioritize which groups would be most vital to the evaluation process. Here are some principles to follow when selecting from our pool of candidates:
- Ensure broad representation to avoid any cliques that can form
- Consider including someone who can challenge the status quo. This increases the likelihood of surfacing any problems or oversights.
- If relevant to our program, we can consider engaging a staff person from a community-based program if the individual participants would be difficult or impossible to engage
Building our strategy for engagement
In addition to who we think could help us, we also need to consider how we will make the best use of their time, so that they feel genuinely involved and we get the input we need.
The reasons for participating in an evaluation may be as numerous as the stakeholders themselves. Some may have a personal stake in the program, or have a commitment to the goals or issue addressed by our organization. Others may want to grow their skills or increase their network of connections. Anticipating some of these motives in advance will help us create an effective engagement strategy. If networking is a motivation, for instance, we can build these opportunities into the way we structure our meetings.
Time and availability
Since we want stakeholders to be involved over the duration of the evaluation, we need to consider their availability. Would virtual meetings or in-person meetings work best? Not everyone will have the time or availability for a group meeting. If this is an issue, consider planning for a range of ways their input could be gathered such as surveys or interviews. When in doubt, we can ask our stakeholders directly how they would like to be involved.
We also need to consider how many stakeholders we are able to engage effectively based on the resources allotted to the evaluation. Too few may yield insufficient feedback and too many may make the process unmanageable. This ties back to our planned modes of engagement.
In person meetings take longer to coordinate and may involve compensation of attendees. If time and money are issues, a less formal approach such as phone interviews may be the more manageable option.
How we will support our stakeholders
In addition to who we will involve and at what stages of planning and delivery we will involve them, we also need to give some forethought to how we will support them during the evaluation process.
If we choose to bring our stakeholders together in a meeting, for instance, we will need to consider if we or members of our team have the necessary skills and experience to lead a group process. If not, engaging a facilitator skilled in evaluation may be needed to ensure methods are used that will help the group build trust and enable everyone’s voice to be heard
During the early stages of engagement, we can’t assume that our stakeholders will be as intimately familiar with our operations or with evaluation. For this reason, it’s important we plan to orient our stakeholders to the vision, mission and values of our organization as well as a simple and jargon-free overview of why we want to evaluate and how the process will work.
In order to build trust with our stakeholders, we need to establish upfront a way of interacting that is clear, honest and direct. Sharing and discussing as a group, for instance, any perceived barriers that may hinder the evaluation process and prevent it from going as planned, is way to generate this trust along with a shared sense of ownership in the evaluation.
In addition to working together on what we want to learn from our evaluation, our stakeholders can be a good resource to help us plan how the results will be communicated – from reports, to presentations, informal chats or stories.
Most importantly, we can invite our stakeholders to dream with us. Developing a shared vision of what a successful evaluation looks like and what it makes possible for the people we serve is inspiring. This forward-looking optimism will help everyone remember that evaluation is worth the effort.
Do you have other tips for stakeholder engagement in evaluation? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.