Centering Our Values and Cause to Define Evaluation by Tamara Walser & Kirsten Kainz

Hello from Tamara Walser and Kirsten Kainz! Tamara is a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Kirsten is a research professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. We both enjoy the Carolina coast and talking about evaluation, particularly how the evaluation field has evolved and where we hope it’s headed. We’ve discussed an ongoing barrier for the field—that is, misunderstanding of and disagreement about what evaluation is and is not, both within the evaluation field and among the general public.

Many outside the evaluation field think evaluation is a skill set or tool. Insiders may consider it a field, a discipline, a transdiscipline, or a science. Some think evaluation is a type of applied research; others think it’s distinct from research. Forms of inquiry that may include evaluative thinking and action, such as data analytics, design thinking, and improvement science, further confuse matters.

In his popular book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek defines WHY as a purpose, cause, or belief—the reason for existence. Why do evaluators do what they do? What is our purpose and cause? Definitions and descriptions of evaluation commonly focus on WHAT we do. Most converge on actions of valuing—determining merit or worth. Some articulate a purpose, such as supporting decision-making or improvement. Although we may find general agreement on this version of what we do and why, it reinforces evaluation as a skillset or tool and falls short of capturing the values of the evaluation community and the transformative WHY of our work.

What are your values as an evaluator?

What is your evaluation cause?

Language related to transformative purposes and causes exists, for example, in AEA Values Statements and Guiding Principles for Evaluators; however, this language is not articulated in common definitions of evaluation and shared with those outside the field. Finding our WHY requires the evaluation community to deliberate and determine our values and cause—and to center our WHY in definitions and descriptions of evaluation.

As part of the upcoming EVAL2021 conference, we’re hosting a think tank to reflect on the evaluation community’s WHY at 35. We hope to see you there!

Rad Resources:

These readings and resources are a few among many that inspire us to consider the transformative WHY of evaluation. What inspires you?—Please respond in the comments.

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. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

3 thoughts on “Centering Our Values and Cause to Define Evaluation by Tamara Walser & Kirsten Kainz”

  1. Hello Tamara and Kirsten!
    My name is Carolyn and I am currently doing my Professional Masters of Education at Queen’s University. The course I am taking is called Program Inquiry and Evaluation, and we have been asked to choose an article on AEA 365 to respond to. Your article caught my eye because I have read Sinek’s book Start With Why and I loved how you connected his ideas to evaluation.

    Sinek’s book Start With Why really articulates how consistency and authenticity in a vision and mission statement is instrumental in building loyalty and trust between a leader and their followers. Sinek does an excellent job at showing how the “why”, which is the purpose, cause or belief, is the backbone of the company and should be used to ignite passion and build loyalty between workers of all levels and customers. This connects well with Weiss (1998) definition of conceptual use in evaluation. He suggests that ‘findings from an evaluation can change people’s understanding of what a program is or does’ (p. 25). In order for the evaluation to have long-lasting effects, there needs to be a strong presence of ‘why’ that everyone has bought into from the stakeholders, to the staff and customers. I agree with you that evaluation needs a ‘why’ to center the definitions and descriptions of evaluation. This can be improved upon through communication to determine our values and central beliefs.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and spreading the word about the importance of finding your ‘why.’ I look forward to reading your follow up post from your think tank this past week!

  2. Dear Tamara and Kirsten,
    My name is Laura and I an elementary teacher in B.C., Canada. Currently I’m working on my Professional Masters of Education at Queen’s University in Toronto, Canada. During this semester, I am taking my first course in evaluation called Program Inquiry and Evaluation. With limited exposure and knowledge in this area, I have been working hard to learn as much as I can and make sense from this topic. We have been learning that the evaluation field has evolved like you stated especially since the mid 1980’s.

    I enjoyed reading your article and wanted to reach out to you about it as I found it engaging, interesting and made me reflect on my current learning of evaluation. Coming into my current course with no evaluation experience or knowledge, I didn’t really know what evaluation was. I can see how those in the field and the general public could have disagreements about the “what” of evaluation. Due to my lack of familiarity of evaluation, I thought it was a skill set but as I’ve been learning over the last two months it’s much more than a skill set.
    You refer to Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why and I think that asking the question, “Why do evaluators do what they do?” is very important. Understanding and knowing ‘why’ we do evaluation as it concentrates on the values of the evaluator. The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of evaluation are significant and crucial terms that evaluators or anyone working with an evaluator should be aware of. For all involved in the evaluation process, everyone involved should be able to clearly answer the ‘why’ to an evaluation.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and rad resources on the WHY of evaluation. Best of luck at the upcoming EVAL2021 conference and wishing you a fabulous turn out at your think tank from the evaluation community.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts!

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Laura. We are hoping to write a follow-up post after our Think Tank session tomorrow–to share what we hear from others and our reflections. Thanks again for commenting!

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