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Evaluation 2022 New Actors Working Group Week: Lessons from the Intersection of Evaluation x Entrepreneurship by Nina Sabarre

What’s up, AEA? 

My name is Nina Sabarre, PhD, and I’m the Founder & CEO of Intention 2 Impact (I2I), a research, evaluation, and strategy firm known for helping funders and social enterprises measure and maximize their impact. I like to call myself an #evalpreneur, because I work, think, play, and thrive in the chaotic and fun intersection of evaluation + entrepreneurship. 

As an entrepreneur, I try to practice what we preach and think evaluatively about our business strategy. As an evaluator, I love approaching our work with an entrepreneurial spirit — staying on the cutting edge of innovations and expanding our services into new markets. 

In the past few years, I2I has conducted several evaluations for accelerator programs, intended to support entrepreneurs and innovators with the capital, connections, and resources needed to scale their social enterprises. In many ways, these projects are similar to evaluations in more traditional contexts (e.g., nonprofits, foundations, and public agencies). We leverage the same frameworks, tools, and methodologies to help entrepreneurs articulate theories of change, ask the right questions, and collect meaningful data. 

However, unlike the usual suspects, entrepreneurs are operating under unique pressures. Rather than reporting outcomes for the sake of learning and accountability to grantmakers and communities, founders of startups need to report to investors who typically expect a return on their investment. This means entrepreneurs need data fast and for specific reasons, such as: 

  • To integrate M&E data with market research
  • To fail fast and innovate
  • To distinguish from competitors 
  • To demonstrate SROI (social return on investment)
  • To support marketing and branding

Although the questions and methods are similar to evaluations in nonprofit settings, the context and uses are not. Therefore, the approach to evaluation must be different. 

Here are some takeaways we’ve observed from evaluating social enterprises and accelerator programs (and, from being a startup ourselves): 

  1. Failure is not a bad thing. Investors and startup founders are not afraid of failure. In fact, data that demonstrates failure is incredibly valuable because it helps entrepreneurs pivot, adapt, and innovate. 
  1. Data should capture both profit and purpose. We know that profit is kind of an icky word in a field driven by social justice and grounded in academia. It has taken me several years to unlearn limiting beliefs about money (another story for another day). But the truth is, there are so many incredible for-profit businesses out there that are making the world a more sustainable and equitable place. And, in the past few years alone, the number of startups founded by women and people of color has increased substantially, with Black women being the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs. So let’s stop assuming social innovators can’t excel in business structures that they are actively trying to disrupt and change. We can do both. Evaluation data should inform both.
  1. Make it sexy! OK, calm down, I’m not talking NSFW here. I just mean that in the startup world, data can be valid, reliable, AND a lil’ bit “salesy.” Centering use requires compelling and convincing your target audience. You don’t have to deviate from your values or rigor to be creative (and fun) in your delivery. 

At the risk of being cheekier than other AEA365 posts, this #evalpreneur is eager to shake things up in our field. I feel strongly about the power, potential, and privilege of evaluators to advance equity, inclusion, and justice across all sectors of society — including the private sector. 

We’ve made our mark in the public and philanthropic sectors. Now, who’s ready to venture into new territories with us?

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.

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