Hi, I’m Lisa Melchior, President of The Measurement Group LLC, a consulting firm focused on the evaluation of health and social services for at-risk and vulnerable populations. In response to Sheila B. Robinson’s recent post that reported what AEA 365 readers said they want to see in 2015, I’m writing about developing, sharing, and storing lessons learned from evaluation. Although this is written from the perspective of evaluation at the initiative level, it could also apply to lessons learned by an individual program.
The United Nations Environment Programme gives a useful definition of lessons learned as “knowledge or understanding gained from experience.” In a grant initiative, lessons learned might address ways to implement the projects supported through that initiative; strategies for overcoming implementation problems; best practices for conducting services (whether or not the projects employed all of them); strategies for involving key stakeholders to optimize the outcomes of the projects and their sustainability; and ideas for future directions. Statements of lessons learned are an important outcome of any grants initiative; the richness and complexity of those statements can be, in part, an indicator of the overall success of the initiative. Funders often utilize the lessons learned by their grantees to inform the development of future investments.
Developing lessons learned. If possible, work with the funder to collect examples of lessons learned using the funder’s progress reporting mechanism. When the evaluator has access to such reports, qualitative approaches can be used to catalog and identify themes among the lessons learned. Another benefit of integrating the documentation of lessons learned into ongoing programmatic reporting is that trends over the life of a project or initiative can emerge, since many initiatives request this type of information from grantees on a semi-annual or quarterly basis. Active collaboration between funder and evaluator is key to this approach.
Sharing lessons learned. Don’t wait until the end of a project to share lessons learned! Stakeholders can benefit from lessons learned in early implementation. For example, my colleagues and I highlighted interim outcomes and lessons learned during the first three years of the Archstone Foundation’s five-year Elder Abuse and Neglect Initiative in an article in the Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect.
In a more summative mode, toolkits are a useful vehicle for sharing lessons learned with those interested in possible replication of a particular program, model, or initiative. Social media and blogs are great for more informal sharing.
Storing lessons learned. Qualitative data tools such as NVivo are invaluable to organizing lessons learned.
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