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So What Do You Do?

So what do you do?

Do you get blank looks when you tell friends you evaluate social programs? You are not alone!

Evaluators often bemoan the fact that nobody seems to understand what they do. And while these complaints are often framed as mild frustrations, they have more serious implications. Professions survive on their ability to convince the public about the value of their work. If evaluators cannot describe what they do in a way that others understand, our ability to continue expanding the field may be constrained.

A few years ago, my colleague Ashley Hunt and I ran a research project to try and understand how evaluators talk about evaluation. We wanted to try and figure out why evaluators seemed to have such a difficult time explaining what we do to friends and loved one (not to mention to potential clients!)

Our research suggested that evaluators typically spend a lot of time on the question of “why” (why would someone do evaluation?) without spending as much time on what it actually is, and what it looks like in practice. People would offer high level descriptions (“I evaluate social programs”) leaving people who don’t know what social programs are none the wiser about what evaluating those programs might mean. 

So what?

We argue that people first need to understand what social programs are before they get to caring about evaluation. We also suggest using these research-based tips when you’re trying to explain evaluation:

  1. Situate your description in a context your listener understands, using relevant examples (e.g. “you know how the government spends money on programs like Relevant Example 1 and Relevant Example 2?”)
  2. Give a high level overview (e.g. “We do research to find out if they make a positive impact.”)
  3. Explain–succinctly–what that means at a practical level (e.g. “we do things like surveys, or interviews…”)
  4. Then hit them with the why (“…in the hopes that we can help them learn and adapt to do as much good as possible).

Want some resources?

Here are a couple of resources we’ve put together at the Center for Research Evaluation, using these tips, to help us explain evaluation to our friends, family, and clients.

Resource #1: Meet Pia!

Share this short (one and a half minute video) with friends, family and prospective clients to build understanding about evaluation:

Resource #2: Two-pager

If you need something a little more formal, try this two-page summary about what evaluation is, and why in the world someone would spend their hard earned dollars on it: CERE-What-is-evaluation

If you’d like to dig a little deeper, read our article in the American Journal of Evaluation.

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