**4 min read**
Benita Williams is a very experienced, still-quite-young evaluator from South Africa, a great colleague with whom I have done a number of assignments over the years. Her Top Tips clearly show the personal challenges faced when working in sometimes very difficult contexts on the ground in Africa, while balancing life with highly technical work and running a business.
For young and emerging evaluators there is plenty of advice about how to gain the necessary skills and knowledge, and how to get the right experience in evaluation. These technical aspects of evaluation are very important. A part of being an evaluation consultant, one that people rarely talk about, is managing the emotional side of your work. Evaluators, much like other aid workers are likely to experience “work stress including extremely heavy workloads, long hours and limited time for self-care” which may lead to mental health issues including depression, burnout and anxiety.
In this post, I’d like to share some difficulties that evaluators need to be prepared for and share a non-exhaustive list of tips on how to prevent or address them. Some of these challenges are not specific to evaluation per se but may be worthwhile to be aware of.
Top Tip 1. The cruel tyranny of deadlines. As an evaluator, you will constantly be chasing deadlines. You are going to pull some all-nighters to make a deadline if you were unable to start early enough, or if an unexpected hurdle appears. Rewriting your report after you find out your quantitative analysis was all wrong – that happens. Sometimes you are going to miss a deadline. – Talk to your clients well in advance if you run into trouble, ask colleagues to help, delegate what you can.
Top Tip 2. Paralysis from juggling competing priorities. Some mornings you are going to get into the office with so much to do that you are going to find it hard to choose where to start. – Just start. The longer you postpone, the more unpleasant the situation might become.
Top Tip 3. Annoyance when you are the messenger who gets shot at – You might reach an evaluation determination that tells a project manager that their project-baby has ugly toes. They might argue with you, start attacking your methodology or credibility. – Where possible, don’t spring the surprise on the evaluation user when you submit the final report. Have informal conversations during the evaluation process.
Top Tip 4. Working with an evaluand that affects you emotionally – You might be used to dealing with very difficult topics, but if you are a human, you might be faced with situations that make you feel horrified, or powerless, or incensed or just intensely sad. The plight of those people you meet in your evaluations is sometimes difficult to not identify with. – Find someone to debrief with. You are allowed to feel. Acknowledge any bias that this might introduce into your work.
Top Tip 5. Feeling rejected if you do not land an assignment – Like an actor who gets rejected after some auditions, your proposals for potential projects are likely to be rejected sometimes. – Ask for feedback and learn from your rejections. Find out what your weaknesses are and build your own capacity, or find people with the right skills to collaborate with
Top Tip 6. Feeling demoralized when you work with people who do not understand evaluation – You might craft a beautiful evaluation design, or deliver an excellent product, but sometimes your client might just not get it. – Recognise that people have different understandings and build processes in your evaluation to make sure you understand your clients’ expectations. Build capacity as far as you go.
Top Tip 7. Feeling discouraged because of wasted blood sweat and tears – You might work for a year on building a monitoring system with a client, only to find that it never gets adopted. You might propose some well-founded evaluation findings and recommendations – only to find that the client chooses to ignore it and go in a totally different direction. – Communicate your messages clearly to the right people., but remember you are only the evaluator and realise that decisions are often informed by more than evidence.
Top Tip 8. Feeling lazy if you try to maintain work-life balance when other consultants seem to work 24/7 – Work ethics differ, and being seen as professional requires you to adopt the work ethic of those who you work with. Sometimes, however, you might find that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands and maintain a work-life balance. You might start feeling guilty for not working on a holiday. – Make sure that you switch off, and communicate your boundaries. Research shows that you are likely to function better at work if you take some time to recharge.
Top Tip 9. Feeling overwhelmed by all of the skills and knowledge you should have – If you read about all of the skills and knowledge evaluators have, you might become disheartened. – Make use of formal learning opportunities such as courses, conferences and academic programmes, join an evaluation association or society to keep abreast of trends, and do not underestimate the power of social networks such as Twitter to support your continuous professional development.
Despite the difficulties, the rewards of being involved in something manageable, meaningful and comprehensible is bound to lead to a greater sense of fulfilment. Research has shown that this has positive health outcomes, so strive for it. Being an evaluator can be intensely rewarding too.
Benita Williams is a South African evaluator with a keen interest in evaluation methods and evaluation design. Working on a Master’s in Research Psychology, her most recent interests have focused on the evaluation of education support initiatives. She frequently works as Developmental Evaluator. She is a previous board member of AfrEA and SAMEA and continues to build the capacity of VOPEs through the IOCE VOPE Toolkit.