Challenges of sharing truth through evaluation in the non-profit sector and strategies that are proven to work by Alicia McCoy

Hi everyone. My name is Alicia McCoy and I am the Head of Research and Evaluation at beyondblue, a national public health mental health organization in Australia. My perspective on what it means to share truth to those in power in the non-profit sector comes from a decade working as an internal evaluator and senior manager in this context.

Here is some of what I have learned in this time.

Lessons Learned:

For the organization

An organization needs to be a safe space for truth-telling through evaluation to occur. This involves leaders at all levels actively promoting and modeling learning and continuous improvement. What leaders don’t pay attention to can be just as important as what they do pay attention to. It also involves a culture where organizational members feel comfortable with failure and with sharing their mistakes, including to those in power. Individuals should be supported to develop a growth mindset, from which energy is created as a result of evaluative information and, if needed, there is a shared desire to do things better or differently. Creating this enabling environment ensures that the truth an evaluator shares is better received and more likely to be acted upon.

For the evaluator

Don’t be afraid to speak truth to power but consider how, when and under what circumstances you do so. The non-profit sector is filled with passionate and dedicated people who have often poured their heart and soul into designing and delivering programs and managing and leading organizations. While constructive feedback will often be appreciated, for some people it can also be very difficult to hear. Understand the reality of what program and other staff do and the challenges they face. Build relationships. Earn trust. Learn who the champions of truth are in an organization and where possible, use them to support you. Non-profit organizations are often working to address incredibly complex issues – appreciate this and ensure that evaluation findings are shared in a way that services stronger programming. This creates a value proposition for the sharing of truth through evaluation and a better understanding of how this can contribute to common goals.

Rad Resource: l find Hallie Preskill and Rosalie Torres’ book on evaluative inquiry, “Evaluative Inquiry for Learning in Organizations” incredibly useful on this topic. The book discusses four factors to build evaluative inquiry in an organization – culture, leadership, communication, and systems and structures – and these also apply to sharing truth. Another valuable resource is Melvin Mark and Gary Henry’s book on how evaluation can support sense-making about programs and the pursuit of social betterment, “Evaluation: An Integrated Framework for Understanding Guiding, and Improving Policies and Programs.”

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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

2 thoughts on “Challenges of sharing truth through evaluation in the non-profit sector and strategies that are proven to work by Alicia McCoy”

  1. Hi Alicia,

    Your article was a great summary of the attitude we need to take as evaluators when working with any group of people. As an Learning Support Teacher who develops and evaluators plans for students daily I find one of the most important things to work on is relationships. I feel I can talk more openly and accomplish more when the student or teacher and I have trust and respect. Often I need to have tough conversations with parents and teachers. By saying “we are a team” it helps to level the playing field. This does not negate our role as evaluators. Instead there is an equity in realizing that everyone on the ‘team’ has a role to play. We all bring something to the table but there also needs to be leaders and experts in certain areas of the evaluation. By having a team approach, the evaluator is still the leader but there becomes a growth mindset of learning and changing together. It is easier to gauge timing for and give constructive feedback to better strengthen the program when there is relationships built on trust and respect.

    What ways have you built trust with the programs you have worked with? What happens if you are short on time for the evaluation and it is difficult to create those relationships?

    Thank you for your post!
    Brooklyn Wingert
    Regina, SK, Canada.

  2. Hello,

    I must say this article really stuck with me for a variety of reasons. The first being while I write my own program evaluation design and second what this teaches me as an educator. I think we often forget the importance of an organization being a safe place and the value that the information obtained holds. In my classroom, I utilize a growth mindset approach in our goal setting and our collaborative approach to learning. I instill the importance of being honest and truthful but also teach my students the importance of accepting failure as a learning opportunity. We all have to be comfortable and willing to speak the truth no matter the consequence and we all have to accept that not being successful in any aspect of learning is not a bad thing. It provides us with a stepping stone to educational growth.

    Moving forward, I will continue to teach my own students the importance of failure, honesty and being comfortable in our own skin. This will only help them grow as they move through the education system. Constructive feedback is something that I teach to the best of my ability, if we can’t learn and grow from feedback, there is no point in the process. Thank you for your article!

    Respectfully, Cody

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