**5 min read**
I met Donna around 15 years ago when she asked me to interact with the class she was instructing in South Africa. I was immediately struck by her commitment, expertise and passion for evaluation. I helped her settle in South Africa – and how good that I did that! She has been an asset for evaluation on the continent ever since. Her expertise and passion for the field - and for her adopted country - remain. This is most clearly displayed in her work on the professionalisation of evaluation in South Africa and internationally, and in the articles and books she has published. See for example this important book on democracy and democratic evaluation in South Africa. In this post she shares some reflections from her latest book, one that I believe will become a “must-have” for emerging (as well as not-so-young!) evaluators.
Hi. I am Donna Podems, and I am an evaluator. For the past 23 years I have conducted and guided evaluative processes in parts of the United States, Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. While being an evaluator is not a bed of roses, I can’t imagine being anything else.
Being an Evaluator. What does that entail, exactly?
Evaluators do lots of things and can fill many roles. What we do, and how we do it, can often be the topics of long, convoluted discussions. Want to know a secret?
Every time (and I mean every single time) someone casually asks me what I do for a living, it gives me the “deer in the headlights” syndrome. I often say something vaguely about social change, and then quickly try to turn the conversation around by saying something such as “Well, enough about me, what about you?” What? People like to talk about themselves. And I do too—which is why my vague answer is sort of an odd response, considering that I love being an evaluator. I could talk about what I do for hours (and hours)—and that is at the core of it: The conversation would take quite some time.
So, what are some of the roles to consider?
Ah, so many roles, so little time. The particular roles that make evaluation exciting and meaningful to me are that of educator, facilitator, and negotiator, very similar to what Patton describes in his books (Patton, 2008, 2012). I recognize that not all evaluators fill these three roles, and not all evaluations need them. The importance of these three roles will depend on how you view an evaluator’s role in society, on the types of evaluation you conduct, and on the kinds of organizations and people with whom you work. The two last roles, that of ambassador and learner, are roles that I think all YEE can fill.
- The educator role. The educator role does not refer to being an evaluation lecturer or university professor, though those are excellent roles. Here the focus is on being an educator during an evaluative process. The educator role can be subtle, such as recommending an evaluation blog (hey, I know one we can recommend!), article, book, or webinar to key stakeholders or those from whom data are gathered (i.e., the people interviewed or observed). Or it can be more overt, such as describing methods of inquiry or explaining evaluation approaches to colleagues or clients.
- The facilitator role. The facilitator role can vary greatly, from helping stakeholders(all those who have a stake in an intervention) to develop or refine evaluation questions, to aiding them in developing theories of change, to conducting data analysis workshops and interpreting results, to ensuring use of evaluation findings.
- The negotiator role. The role of negotiator emerges when an evaluator is faced with diverse viewpoints, such as when key stakeholders have different needs from an evaluation. Examples of topics that often need at least some negotiation include evaluation questions, focus of the evaluation, budget, time frames, persons to interview and not to interview, data collection methods, and ways to disseminate the findings, just to name a few.
These three roles—education, facilitation, and negotiation—are often mentioned with regard to interactions with and among clients, participants, and beneficiaries. However, these three roles are also often critical to leading, or being an active member of, an evaluation team.
Here are two roles that I think all aspiring YEE can fill, that of ambassador and learner.
- The ambassador role. This is a critical role to the field and one that I enjoy filling, both formally and informally. It is a role that an evaluator can fill all the time, not just when evaluative processes are being conducted. An evaluator fills the ambassador role by promoting evaluation; educating others on its standards and ethics; and raising awareness about evaluation societies, groups, and other organizations that are relevant to the contexts in which evaluators work.
- The learning role. Even with nearly 25 years of experience, I never stop learning. All over the world, especially where funds dedicated to social improvement are finite, thoughtful, kind, knowledgeable, and skilful evaluators can offer appropriate evaluative processes that inform decisions that affect people’s lives, animals’ lives, and the environment. Capable evaluators can fulfil an important societal role, while incompetent ones can be a detriment. Zenda’s blog fills a critical role in an effort to support YEE. I want to thank her for allowing me to be a part of her awesome efforts.
Remember, when you label yourself (or others label you) as an evaluator, you represent us all.
Where can I read more about what it is like to be an evaluator and how to be one?
In my new book, Being an Evaluator: Your Guide to Evaluation, I dive into the murky sea of evaluation and guide you through it all. I take each of you on a journey that demystifies evaluation, explores what it means to be an evaluator, and share some well-kept trade secrets along the way (I shared my own secret in this blog, and introduced some of my friends who join us in the book). I hope you can join me on the journey. Bye for now!
Donna R. Podems, PhD, is a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, and Director of an evaluation firm in Cape Town. She has served on the National Boards of SAMEA and AEA. She edited a book on democratic evaluation and has written numerous articles and book chapters on feminist evaluation, process evaluation, principles-focused evaluation, systems evaluation, utilization-focused evaluation, democratic evaluation, and evaluator professionalisation.