We need to get much better at “selling” evaluation (the “E” in “M&E”). This is important especially in the Global South, where evaluation may be particularly valuable in helping those with little hope for a better life.
Perhaps this means that we should have a better, more collective understanding of the value proposition of evaluation – that is, the value that evaluation promises to deliver to those who can use it, and the beliefs of the (potential) users about the value that they will experience.
We also need to get much better at communicating what we actually do.
I am not sure that we will do well if we have to present our case to a venture capitalist or the CEO of an influential organisation. We still do not have a series of convincing 2 minute “elevator speeches” lined up for those occasions when a stranger asks us what we do. Or, for that matter, lay persons, and our family and friends, or the potential and intended beneficiaries of our work.
So where exactly do we go wrong?
Our definitions of evaluation, even the simplest ones, appear to be too technocratic for most people. We also don’t see many shared narratives about our profession emerging from those who practise it around the world. Perhaps this is because evaluation has so many dimensions. It is also diverse, practised by many different groupings and, of course, open to dispute and controversy.
But for our professionalisation – or rather, for our professionalism - it is becoming increasingly important to cultivate at least a few important shared narratives around our profession, including elevator pitches.
At the very least this will demand from us that our messages position our profession effectively within societal needs and priorities. We will have to understand how to communicate real value – whatever that means to society in each context and in each culture.
“What do you do?” My two minute elevator pitch
I have to work at developing a more convincing, punchy narrative to catch the attention of an influential CEO or venture capitalist who has never heard of evaluation – it is still too uninspiring and does not capture the wide reach of the potential value of evaluation.
“Evaluation is a great support for leaders and managers in any sector and at any level, from local to global. It can be very valuable, even essential for success.
We can use our professional experience, credible evidence and informed judgment to help any type of organisation, teams, or grouping of individuals or organisations to improve, take better decisions and get better results. We help them to determine the value and impact of their work, explain why things go right or wrong, and much more. We also help them to think more evaluatively for their own benefit, and to be more accountable.
I focus on development. Here we work with, and aim to ensure that even the most vulnerable groups and countries have a chance to do better.
“What do you do?” My four minute pitch to strangers
My four minute narrative for strangers I meet at social gatherings or on planes seems to work fairly well when it is someone who does not even know what “programme” or “development” means. They usually want to know more, with real interest.
“Many governments and other organisations give money that is used to help people to develop, to live a better life – for example, through better education or health, support for business development, protection of the environment, or help when disaster strikes.
Such development efforts sometimes work well and sometimes not so well. So they ask me to come and figure out how well things are being planned or done; what difference the money or support has made, is making or likely to make; and why things are succeeding, moving too slowly, or failing.
I have to make some judgment about their plans or work or impact, based on good processes and evidence, and on my experience. This means I have to evaluate, so I am an evaluator.
One can never be arrogant when evaluating development. It is difficult to get good results. I tend to work closely with the people who are involved in making the effort work. Sometimes I help them to put in place better plans or processes or methods.
I am lucky. I see the worst of the world, but also the best. I do evaluation because it can make a difference to those who might have only one chance to be the best they can be. What I do is meant to help everyone do better in future so that countries can prosper and our planet can survive the onslaught of humankind.
In the end, I have to trust that I have sown some seeds that will eventually grow into resilient trees and beautiful flowers – although I will probably never know that, because I would have moved on to a new assignment.”
I would love to see others’ narratives to see whether they capture the imagination and can project the full value proposition of evaluation in a few simple sentences to someone who has little idea of what we do.
Zenda Ofir is an independent South African evaluator at present based near Geneva. She works primarily in Africa and Asia, and advises organisations around the world. She is a former AfrEA President, IOCE and IDEAS Vice-President, AEA Board member, Honorary Professor at Stellenbosch University, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow, and at present Interim Council Chair of the new International Evaluation Academy.