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SIM TIG Week: Powerful Assumptions by Andrea Nelson Trice

I’m Andrea Nelson Trice, President of Trice & Associates, an evaluation and consulting firm. This case came from my research for a book project on the human dimensions of social enterprise success.

Tony, a successful entrepreneur, visited several emerging markets and determined that dependency on fire for light is unacceptable in the 21st century. The health and safety dangers alone make an alternative essential. He knew how to design low-cost solar lights, so he quit his job and began building a social enterprise to address this problem.

He received a grant to give away thousands of his lights with the goal of priming the pump in multiple markets. Now, two years later, we’re brought in to evaluate the enterprise’s impact. The problem is, the company is far from breaking even. “I don’t know how many more things I can try,” Tony says. “People just aren’t buying our lights.”

As evaluators, do we simply pull out a standard template to evaluate the work, or do we risk asking deeper, more difficult questions around assumptions that are driving the enterprise? In interviews with Tony and emerging market social entrepreneurs, I’ve heard very different perspectives about “the problem.”

Rad Resources:

  • Perhaps one of the most important things we can contribute as program evaluators is help identifying faulty assumptions that guide the work. Here is my website, which includes more on this.
  • Increase your understanding of cultural differences. One of my favorite resources is from Professor Geert Hofstede, whose research team highlights national cultural differences.

Hot Tips:

  • As a Do-It-Yourself culture, we often assume we can make sense of cultural differences on our own. That’s rarely the case. Expats, who have lived in a culture for years, can be great resources.
  • Consider the Amish. It may seem futile to market solar lights to people who have no problem with their current light sources. But how often do we unintentionally overlay our values onto another culture as we work to solve a “pressing need?”

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Social Impact Measurement Week with our colleagues in the Social Impact Measurement Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our SIM TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

1 thought on “SIM TIG Week: Powerful Assumptions by Andrea Nelson Trice”

  1. Hi Andrea,

    I am currently completing my Professional Master of Education program through Queen’s University. For my current course, Program Inquiry and Evaluation, I developed a program evaluation plan for a non-for-profit organization providing micro-loans to women living in poverty within developing countries. Your blog spoke to my recent knowledge acquisition relating to cultural assumptions and how they play into program development and evaluation. Although, one would assume that providing a startup capital and business support to motivated women living in poverty, that this intervention would be beneficial. However, such assumptions relating to the oversimplification of this problem are faulted. During my literature review, I realized the ill-structuredness of the qualitative aspect of the problem I am evaluating is quite significant. In a study by Dutt and Grabe (2016) titled Exploring links between women’s business ownership and empowerment among Maasai women in Tanzania, they discuss their assumptions relating partner control, agency and financial decision making on physical violence, depression and self-esteem. The results identified fault in their original assumptions between the following correlations: agency and partner control; agency and financial decision making; agency and physical violence; financial decision making and physical violence; financial decision making and self-esteem; physical violence and depression ; physical violence and self-esteem. This qualitative data re-iterates your main points. Additionally, not only can these assumptions be inaccurate and result in ineffective programs, they but can have undesired consequences if we do not understand the connection between these concepts. Like Tony, I have also come to the realization recently that it is easier and safer to engage in formative feedback processes instead of wrongly assuming that I have the answers to everything.

    Thank you for your post.


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