Lara Hilton on Developing Relationships with Stakeholders

Hello! I am Lara Hilton MPH, and I am a research analyst at RAND Corporation (Santa Monica, CA), Samueli Institute (Alexandria, VA), and a doctoral student at Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA). I have worked in evaluation contexts such as hospitals, clinics, military settings, and international development with a myriad of stakeholders. I have a few guidelines that I find helpful when developing new relationships. Akin to a first date, the first meeting with stakeholders is usually rife with anxiety, expectations, and assumptions. I hope these suggestions help you navigate the waters of this delicate period of relationship building:

Hot Tip: Be informed. Read ahead by accessing as much information as possible about the organization, people, program, mission, goals, and setting. The more you know about them, the more intelligent your inquiry will be. This suggestion cannot be overstated.

Hot Tip: Be alert. Have your antennae out to get a quick read on stakeholders. In a first meeting, many people reveal opinions, expectations, orientations, values, prejudices. Pay special attention to their level of evaluation expertise, interest in evaluation, and goals for what they want to get out of the evaluation. Conflicting opinions may begin to arise that are best negotiated early in the relationship.

Hot Tip: Be flexible. Match your language to theirs. If they are research or academically inclined then use evaluation jargon. If they do not have evaluation expertise then it is best not to overwhelm with meaningless terms. If they use special terms like acronyms then adopt them immediately. Get on the same page with language as soon as possible to enhance communication.

Hot Tip: Be of service. The most effective way to overcome the negative reputation of our profession is to be of service to the organization, transparently. State it up front. I have literally heard a sigh of relief from program directors and staff when they hear me say that I am here to serve them. Part of this process is to make sure that research questions include not only “does it work” but also “how” and “why” so that negative final results are accompanied by their context and feedback loops for improvement may be provided, if appropriate.

Rad Resource: The CDC’s first step in the program evaluation framework is to engage stakeholders. A practical guide for determining how and to what extent to involve stakeholders in evaluation can be found here.

Rad Resource: Donaldson’s 2001 article: Overcoming our negative reputation: Evaluation becomes known as a helping profession (American Journal of Evaluation, 22, 355-361.)

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