EERS Week: The Swimmy Model – Strategic Partnerships to Survive in a Changing Evaluation Market by Kirk Knestis

Kirk Knestis here, Eastern Evaluation Research Society (EERS) President-elect, now with Inciter (nee Carson Research Consulting) in Baltimore. As you’ve heard from other EERS Board members, our upcoming conference theme is Adapt! Evaluators in a Changing World. It’s increasingly clear that some powerful changes we face are in the market for evaluation services. It seems to me that we should be thinking about the implications of those changes and looking for concrete ways to adapt to them.

The Winter 2018 issue of New Directions for Evaluation explores how our marketplace is evolving, and proposes a framework for understanding forces in the evaluation market. The authors explain how the demand side of our business seems to be changing and how the competitors on the supply side are evolving, notably as large firms pursue increasingly smaller contracts. Little fish—small firms and independent contractors—are being outcompeted by the big fish. So, what to do?

In what might be a first for AEA365, I suggest we look to a children’s book, Swimmy by Leo Lionni, for guidance. The New Directions for Evaluation issue discusses a variety of “supply-side mechanisms” that evaluators might use to survive in a “high stakes market where evaluation providers either win or perish.” Leo Lionni’s tale helps us understand one of them—strategic partnerships, or what I call the Swimmy Model, after that story’s little hero fish. Figure out with other little fish how you can cooperate to avoid being eaten. This means growing your school before it’s time to swim in some ocean, understanding that you don’t know when you’ll be facing a tuna.

Lessons Learned:

  • Focus on what you do really well, and tune how you communicate these “differentiator” advantages not just to clients but also to other evaluators.
  • Get friendly with evaluators different from you, to accommodate “domain segmentation” where a proposer is expected to have deep experience with a specific evaluand.
  • Learn the technical capacities of others to broaden the expertise of a proposed evaluation team.
  • Meet evaluators inside agencies that are “internalizing” capacity, as a market for formative and developmental evaluation services and technical assistance.
  • Importantly, work out details of partnerships in advance. Each party’s hourly rate for quotes? Expectations for costing and tracking time on work? Management of technical aspects of the work (e.g., IRB, data security, file sharing)? Consider formalizing partnerships with plain-language memos of understanding, and do it proactively.

Rad Resource: Check out the Winter 2018 issues of New Directions for Evaluation if you care about the business and development aspects of evaluation projects

Hot Tip: Get involved in your local AEA affiliate (your closest reef to swim in) as a step toward partnering with other fish. If you’re on the east coast, consider presenting and attending the EERS conference, a larger body of water that overlaps several active reefs full of clever fish.


The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Eastern Evaluation Research Society (EERS) Affiliate Week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from EERS 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 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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