AEA365 | A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators

TAG | consulting

My name is Ryan Evans and I’m a research associate at Wilder Research, a nonprofit research firm based in Minnesota. At Wilder Research, I work primarily with small- and medium-sized nonprofits in the Twin Cities. When working with smaller clients, it is paramount to deeply involve them in planning and doing the evaluation to ensure that the results are as useful as possible for them.

Lesson Learned: When I started my career as an evaluation consultant, I designed cookie-cutter evaluations. A survey, some focus groups – or both in a mixed methods design – that culminated in a report. I’ve learned that cookie-cutter evaluations are often not responsive enough to the context and changing circumstance of small nonprofits to provide useful results. I have evolved my consulting style to deeply involve my clients in my evaluation work, resulting in an increased likelihood that they can use the results to strategically guide their organization.

Hot Tip: Use an iterative approach. When working on evaluation projects, I will modify my project plan to respond to new ideas that arise from planning and doing the evaluation. I repeatedly ask myself and my client, “Is this work meeting our learning goals? Will this work be useful for improving the program and increasing its reach and sustainability? What might be more useful?” For one of my projects, I had completed half of the planned interviews. When talking with my client about the findings so far and how they related to the project’s learning goals, we decided I should also observe their programming – so we canceled the remaining interviews and I observed the program instead.

Cool Trick: To expedite the iteration process, give clients something concrete and fairly detailed to respond to – a draft infographic, for example – as early as possible. I spend a relatively small amount of time developing initial drafts so that I receive feedback from my clients quickly. This speeds up the process immensely (compared to waiting until I feel I have developed something “just right”).

Hot Tip: Build on the expertise of your clients. I am working with a theater organization and recently proposed doing a student perception survey. They didn’t like the idea of doing a written survey because it wouldn’t utilize their expertise or preferred approach as theater artists. Instead, we designed a “talking survey” that they facilitated with their students. I designed the survey and took notes as they talked through the questions with their students and interactively obtained the data we wanted.

Rad Resources: In my informal researching, the consulting field calls this consultation style “process consulting” or “emergent consulting.” Here’s a link to a research-based blog post about consulting styles, including process and emergent styles.

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.

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My name is Mike Morris and I’m Professor of Psychology at the University of New Haven, where I direct the Master’s Program in Community Psychology. My research focuses on ethical issues in evaluation, and I am an Associate Editor of the American Journal of Evaluation. The best book I’ve ever read for managing my relationships with stakeholders in an evaluation was not written by an evaluator, nor was it written specifically for evaluators.

Rad Resource: Peter Block (2000). Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. http://www.josseybass.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0787948039.html

2014 Update:  Flawless Consulting is now in its 3rd edition (2011).

Among organizational consultants this book is legendary. Evaluation is, in my view, one form of consultation, so it’s not surprising that Block’s book is relevant to our work. His discussion of such issues as entry/contracting, dealing with resistance, and managing the feedback of results is invaluable. Central to his analysis is the concept of “authenticity,” which means putting into words what you are experiencing with stakeholders as you work with them. It might sound a bit scary at first, but the more you practice it, the more effective at managing these relationships you become. I also believe that Block’s approach to consulting can enhance the ethical quality of evaluations, especially in terms of helping evaluators identify strategies for raising and pursuing ethical issues with stakeholders.

Flawless Consulting is exceedingly well-written. It probably helps that Block does not have a doctoral degree, since writing a dissertation is a process that can extinguish one’s ability to compose a sentence that anyone would be interested in reading. Flawless Consulting gets very positive reviews from my students. I hope you’ll agree with them. 

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Best of aea365 week. The contributions all this week are reposts of great aea365 blogs from our earlier years. 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.

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Hello, my name is David Merves and I work for Evergreen Evaluation & Consulting, Inc. (EEC) in Jericho, Vermont.

What is a MARKET NICHE? Black’s Law Dictionary defines it as “a small, profitable market segment suitable for focused marketer attention.” Entrepreneur magazine says, “Niche marketing can be an extremely cost-effective method that targets carefully pinpointed market segments.” At EEC we viewed niche markets as an opportunity to expand and refocus our business, while competing against the scale economies that larger competitors are able to achieve.

This refocusing, rebranding, took the form of a name change and corporate structure. EEC was originally formed as Evergreen Educational Consulting, LLC and based upon our goals and with advice from our attorneys, accountants and mentors we shifted to a C Corp as Evergreen Evaluation and Consulting, Inc. The organizational realignment was linked to our objectives, resources, and capacities.  We spent a year discussing the culture of our business, our attributes, our strategies for achieving our goals and preparing our business plan, which included marketing.

Lesson Learned: It was imperative that we assessed the company’s strengths and weaknesses and aligned our marketing strategies to planned outcomes. We are a small company and our brand is our face to the world.  It is the perception of our values by our customers and potential customers that counts. Our brand is the principles woven into the fabric of our company. Our brand is not a flashy web site or logo. It is our promise and commitment.

Dawn Thilmany, Ph.D. at Colorado State University has written that there are five stages to fully addressing a niche opportunity:

  • Strategic Planning
  • Define Mission and Objectives
  • Strategies and Action
  • Monitoring Key Projects/Objectives
  • Organizational Realignment

After EEC’s rebranding experience we would suggest the following:

  • Think analytically
  • Don’t try to appeal to everyone
  • Be honest with yourself
  • Learn the lingo of your niche
  • Commit 100%
  • You will make mistakes; move on

Hot Tip: As you build your business, be mindful of revenue streams, contractual cycles and invoicing patterns. You don’t want your niche to be so narrow as to have an unexpected event, say Sequestration, impacting the overall viability of your company.  Try to layer your contracts so that you are replacing 20 – 30% of your revenue each year and not having to scramble to replace 75%. When negotiating your invoice schedule consider your cash flow needs. Can your business operate on quarterly payments or do monthly invoices make more sense?

Rad Resources:

Pinterest: Branding and Design books

My favorite, The Brand Called You by Peter Montoya with Tim Vandehey with a forward by Al Ries.

Clipped from http://www.evergreenevaluation.net/index.php

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Promoting Your Consultancy Week with information on marketing and branding. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our colleagues who own evaluation businesses. 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.

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Hi there! My name is Gail Barrington and I’ve been an independent evaluator for over 25 years. It seems to me that three factors help determine the size of your consultancy:

  1. Your Vision—what do you see when you dream of yourself as an independent consultant? Are you on your own, working closely with clients on a few interesting projects but able to retreat to your own private world to get your thinking done? Or do you see yourself working with a couple of trusted colleagues whose skills complement your own, together making a well-oiled team? Or are you embedded in a dynamic organization with several layers of staff and yourself as leader and CEO? The vision that resonates for you will help decide your ideal firm size.
  2. Your Skills—what are special skills you are known for? What did you like best in school? What have you received great feedback about on the job? Is it your technical expertise, knowledge of a specific sector, problem solving ability, project management skills, interaction with clients, or something else? Whatever these skills are, they should be the focus of your marketing efforts.
  3. Your Market—based on the networking and competitive intelligence you have conducted, what organizations are hiring evaluators? In what capacities? What are the social changes, political decisions, and demographic trends that are shaping your community? Who is feeling pressure to demonstrate accountability? Where are your colleagues working these days? Answers to questions like these will help you identify market opportunities as they shift over time.

Of the many lessons I have learned, these three stand out:

Lessons Learned:

  • Nothing is cast in stone. Consultants change their business name, size, and structure all the time. Changes to their vision, preferred skill set, or market cause them to reassess and reconfigure. They move in and out of partnerships, change from sole proprietorship to LLC , and reorganize from corporation to non-profit corporation. Don’t feel that the decision you make now will limit your options later.
  • Once a consultant, always a consultant. Consulting is addictive. I have known many consultants who threw in the towel and returned to “a regular job.” Lack of a reliable income is usually the main reason.  Funnily enough, a year or two later, they are back at consulting again having found themselves unhappy working for someone else. Just a warning!
  • Your business skills are transferrable. If you can run a consulting business, you can run any business. Even when you retire, you may find those small business and entrepreneurial skills surfacing again in unexpected ways. Many people can benefit from the skills you now take for granted and you may find that you never stop using them.
Clipped from http://www.barringtonresearchgrp.com/

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Promoting Your Consultancy Week with information on marketing and branding. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our colleagues who own evaluation businesses. 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.

 

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I’m Patti Bourexis, President of The Study Group Inc. Back in the 1980s I was thrown into the world of marketing. Some of the enduring lessons I learned were from the marketing books of Al Ries and Jack Trout – particularly Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. “Positioning,” wrote Ries and Trout in 1981, “is not what you do to a product, service, or company. It’s what you do to the mind of the prospect. Marketing is …securing a worthwhile position in the prospect’s mind. It’s about getting heard in our overcommunicated society.”

GoldfishSo when we launched The Study Group Inc. in 1992, we applied this positioning concept. We debated about whom our clients should be, how we should work with them and our intended results. We considered Ries and Trout’s first law of marketing: Find a category in the client’s mind that you can be first in. (“It’s better to be first than it is to be better.”)

Our goal became adding value to our clients’ own programs and we worked to create a new category in our clients’ minds focused on how we work. We insist on interacting with each client to define the exact assistance required before any contract is signed. Then we convene a “study group”– not unlike student study groups– which combine skills and expertise to tackle a specific task. Our study groups are temporary task forcesthat concentrate on a single assignment to provide quality services in a short period of time.  Work is intense; client participation is required.  The plans, products, and solutions belong to the client; work does not stop until the client is completely satisfied.  Then the study group is dissolved. We are delighted when a prospective client says, “What is The Study Group?” or, after learning about how we work, exclaims, “Gee, you guys are different.”

Lesson Learned: Sticking to our company positioning has led us down interesting paths. We decline clients who don’t agree with our positioning, which is dicey in tight times. We don’t have a web presence, which differentiates us from competitors. (We prefer word-of-mouth referrals.)  We employ only top talent. We only co-publish results with our clients because the work belongs to them, not us.

Hot Tip: Your path will be different than ours, but sometimes old sources are still good sources. Positioning is broader than product branding. Positioning means deciding how you do your work, with whom you work, and what sets you apart from potential competitors.

Rad Resources:

Al Ries and Jack Trout’s books: Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind and The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Promoting Your Consultancy Week with information on marketing and branding. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our colleagues who own evaluation businesses. 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.

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I’m Stacie Toal and I started my own evaluation consulting firm in 2007.  In the fifteen years prior to that, I had worked mostly in higher education in either paid roles or as a graduate student with a research assistantship. This summer, while preparing for a panel on Independent Consulting I participated in for Minnesota Evaluation Studies Institute – it dawned on me that a large percentage of my current clients are former employers.  So, whether you’re wondering about how to get started on your own or trying to boost your current client list, read on.

Lesson Learned: Even though they didn’t call it evaluation, it was evaluation.  If you are now an evaluator, chances are that before you became an evaluator, you were likely doing evaluation – in some form.  Provided you haven’t burned bridges with previous employers and still respect them enough to work with them again, there are ways to generate new business from previous employers.

Hot Tips:

1. Reach out. Start with a call or email to check in, say hello, and give a brief update on your work now and, perhaps, a link to your website.

2. Brainstorm.  If you still have computer or paper files (e.g., monthly reports, minutes from committee meetings), review them.  Try to imagine building on previous projects or inventing new solutions to old problems.

3. Propose.  Once you create some potential evaluation-projects, showcase your ideas by presenting them with potential evaluation plans.  My experience has shown me that this impresses upon previous employers that you have learned new skills and can apply them in way that would help their organization.

4. Address Cost Concerns.  Whether stated or implied, it is often tough for former bosses to pay for your services now that you have left.  They may not be able to resist comparing a project cost to your former salary. I have often addressed this outright – explaining that I charge the going rate and that they no longer have to worry about paying me benefits.

5. Stress Your Unique Contribution.  Capitalize on your previous relationship.  Only you can do this project for them in the most effective way because you have both the organizational knowledge and the objectivity that comes with being an external evaluator.

Rad Resources:  Don’t forget about former colleagues still working in the organization.  It’s true, they may not have the power or authority to hire you, but they can offer inside scoop of organizational needs and politics behind a potential project.  Perhaps, even more importantly, they can refer you or support hiring you for a project.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Minnesota Evaluation Association (MN EA) Affiliate Week with our colleagues in the MNEA AEA Affiliate. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our MNEA 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.

Hi, I’m Ann Emery. All this week, you’ll hear from members of the Washington Evaluators about the diversity of evaluation opportunities that are available in DC. Evaluation is booming in DC! This is the best city in the world for evaluators because we can choose to specialize in one area or try out different settings, approaches, and content areas throughout our careers.

Hot Tip: The only thing hotter than our humidity is our evaluation scene. Evaluators can choose to work in government agencies, non-profits, foundations, consulting firms, public schools, charter schools, or universities (like American, Catholic, UDC, GallaudetGeorge Mason, George Washington, Georgetown, Howard, and the University of Maryland, just to name a few…). Would you rather be an evaluator in the suburbs? You can also work for Virginia or Maryland’s local government or award-winning school districts.

Lesson Learned: Considering moving to DC? Don’t be alarmed by our bad traffic – we’ve got the cleanest metro system in the world, three airports, AmtrakVRE, and MARC trains, pedicabs, and some of the best bicycling trails and bike commuting in the nation. And we’ll have streetcars next year! Still running late to work? You can always blame it on the presidential motorcade

Hot Tip: Need a break from evaluating programs? On the weekends, DC evaluators can put their skills to use by evaluating the Cherry Blossoms, Redskins, food trucks, farmers markets, museums, nightlife, or even Michele Obama’s fashion choices. Still need something to do? Don’t worry, Washingtonians can talk about politics for hours!

Rad Resource: Visiting DC for a few days? Connect with the Washington Evaluators, Eastern Evaluation Research Society, or the nearby Baltimore Area Evaluators. You can mingle with evaluators at one of our happy hours or attend a brown bag while you’re in town. We welcome visitors to the Washington Evaluators monthly board meetings, and with meetings at hip restaurants in Chinatown, you can’t go wrong.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Washington Evaluators (WE) Affiliate Week with our colleagues in the WE AEA Affiliate. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our WE 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.

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Greetings everyone! I am Denise Roseland, an independent consultant with Minneapolis-based Social Venture Research & Evaluation.

I have moved five times in four years and the benefit of working as a consultant is that my work moves with me.  While many of my clients were once in my backyard, the many moves mean we are now separated by considerable distance. Since we make a living providing expertise and advice, how do we build credibility?

Hot Tip: Create a sense that you are next door and have valuable expertise to share to build a solid reputation as a credible expert with current and potential clients.

  1. Use social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter – see us @SocialVentureEv, LinkedIn)…not to share gifts in Farmville but to link friends, followers and networks to appropriate, professional, online resources.  We routinely share links to articles about shifts in the policy arena where our clients do their work, share a tip when a new funding opportunity comes up that might relate to clients work, and occasionally a cartoon that pokes fun at evaluators, data geeks or researchers (we have a sense of humor about our work and want them to feel comfortable knowing we understand our quirkiness!).
  1. Write a feature for other organizational newsletters, a guest post on a blog or write a blog housed on your own site.  We find they love tips on administering a survey, ideas to invigorate data meetings, or an easy-to-understand summary of recent research in their field.  The idea here is make it real practical and make sure it is of importance to their work.
  2. Attend evaluation/applied research conferences and conferences in the fields where you do most of you work and network with others.  Make sure you have a well-developed “elevator speech” about your expertise and how your firm is unique or well-qualified in their field.
  3. Create virtual communities.  We routinely offer and participate in webinars and online discussion forums.  These virtual community events focus on a topic of interest or that is timely to our clients.  They also allow us to use a variety of experts as presenters, and are a low-cost way for us to share ideas and expertise with clients.
  4. Volunteer professionally.  Our team members regularly serve on proposal review teams with funding organizations, or serve on a state, regional or national committees in a field.  We have built a number of very beneficial relationships through this work that are a regular source of referrals.

Rad Resource:  For more information, refer to a related session handout from Evaluation 2011 available in the AEA public eLibrary.

Have suggestions of your own? Please add them to the comments for this post to extend the discussion.

This contribution is from the aea365 Daily Tips blog, by and for evaluators, from the American Evaluation Association. Please consider contributing – send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org.

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I’m Susan Kistler, the American Evaluation Association’s Executive Director. Today, I thought I’d write about a few resources available if you are developing evaluation contracts.

Rad Resource: James Bell offered a session at Evaluation 2010 on Contracting for Evaluation Products and Services. He offered advice in five areas: creating a feasible, agreed-upon concept plan; developing a well-defined request for proposals (RFP); selecting a well-qualified evaluator team that will fulfill the sponsor’s intent; constructively monitoring interim progress; and ensuring the quality and usefulness of major evaluation products. His session slides are available for free download.

Rad Resource: Melanie Hwalek of SPEC associations has shared an Evaluation Contract Template that she uses via the AEA pubic eLibrary. She also offered great tips for Evaluation Contracts in an aea365 post back in February of 2010.

Rad Resource: Daniel Stufflebeam developed an Evaluation Contracts Checklist “designed to help evaluators and clients to identify key contractual issues and make and record their agreements for conducting an evaluation.” It may be downloaded from the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University along with a number of other evaluation-focused checklists.

Rad Resource: The American Evaluation Association has a vibrant Independent Consultants Topical Interest Group (TIG) that has the most active discussion list of any of AEA’s 40+ TIGs. If you’re not an AEA member, consider joining today, building your network, and learning from their collective expertise.

If you have ideas or resources to share regarding evaluation contracts, add them to the comments for this post!

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.

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I’m Annelise Carleton-Hug, principal evaluator of Trillium Associates, a small evaluation company with a focus on environmental program evaluation. I’m also the Chair of the Environmental Program Evaluation TIG and I invite you to learn more about our TIG by visiting the EPE TIG website.

Hot Tip: Consider this aea365 post a conversation starter that encourages the AEA community to share tips and ideas for reducing the environmental impacts of our work. Personally, I’m much more attuned to living a greener life in my home life. I know I have a lot to learn about thinking sustainably in how I conduct my evaluation business. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking of how you can reduce your use of resources as well as the amount of waste you create.

Hot Tip – Marketing your business: Investing in a professionally-crafted website is not only one of the best ways to market your evaluation services, it is also a sound ecological choice.

Hot Tip – Conducting the Evaluation: Consider how data will be collected. Can you effectively use online surveys rather than paper copies? Consider conducting interviews and focus groups via telephone, Skype or other conferencing platform to reduce travel costs and environmental side effects.

Hot Tip – Reporting: Do you really need a paper report? Many times I’ve found that the clients are satisfied with an electronic file; however, I don’t want to simply transfer the burden of printing the report to the recipient. Rather than producing one long report, it’s a good idea to “chunk” the electronic version of the report into sections (e.g. Executive Summary, separate reports for each stakeholder group) so that the client can choose to print out only what is necessary. Another tip: create a PowerPoint with pertinent data summaries so that the client can share the results in that format, foregoing the need for long reports. For times when I do produce a printed report, I make sure to use post-consumer recycled paper and earth-friendly inks, and I include notation of this fact in the front pages.

Hot Tip – Office materials: When it comes time to upgrade your office equipment, keep your old computer and other electronic equipment out of the waste stream by recycling or donating. Check out these helpful resources from the EPA: http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/donate.htm

Hot Tip – Recharge your own batteries: Be sure to make time for yourself to spend time in nature, to remind yourself why it is so vitally important that we reduce our negative environmental impact. Take a hike, work in your garden, ride the rapids, watch the sunset. Make connecting with nature a regular part of your life. In addition to physical and mental health benefits, you’ll probably be inspired to learn more ways to protect and restore our planet.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Earthweek with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation AEA Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our EPE 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.

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