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OL-ECB TIG Week: Using a culture of learning models to build organization-wide evaluation capacity by Arin Ahlum Hanson, Kristen Gardner-Volle, and Laura Pinsoneault

Hello! We are Arin Ahlum Hanson, former Director of Outreach at Living Beyond Breast Cancer, and Kristen Gardner-Volle and Laura Pinsoneault, of Evaluation Plus. In 2022, Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC) and Evaluation Plus (E+) partnered to build evaluation capacity across all levels of staff rather than through one centralized evaluation role. While our project’s original goal was to update a universal outcomes survey and increase survey responses, what LBBC really needed was alignment around meaningful impact. So, we set to build a culture of learning.

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Pay attention to readiness. Our work together started by listening to staff through one-to-ones and using a readiness assessment to learn what data they were collecting (it was a lot), what questions they were asking of that data (not many), and what they wanted from their work (to know they are having impact). We also learned that, like most nonprofits, LBBC staff produced high-quality programs and initiatives but had no time to step back and reflect on how they produced those programs, or how they could continue to grow with wider impact in mind.  

Adopt practical tools that breakdown silos. Meaningful impact is achieved through collaboration and intentionality. It also requires muscles for reflection and learning. Busy staff often feel they don’t have the time or expertise to evaluate. LBBC sets aside time each year for program planning and does strategic planning every 3-5 years, but they needed tools and processes to reflect on their daily work together (strengthening collaboration) and be adaptive to get the most out of their work (aligning around impact). Decision-making tools that link strategy to desired results, such as Before/After Action Reviews (AARs) and Strategy Screens, are easy to document and incorporate analysis in real-time.

Use a “small bites” approach. Nonprofits easily fall into an “all-or-nothing” mindset. Building muscle to use new tools is much more effective and sustainable when you ease into it. For example, start by setting small goals about how frequently you use a tool with one of your projects instead of all of them. When beginning a new workout program, you wouldn’t jump into lifting 100 lb dumbbells! You would start small and work your way up.

Focus on progress, not perfection. Our goal was to build evaluation capacity, not create academic evaluators. Rather than strive for perfect use, we emphasized progress over perfection. With each tool introduced, E+ modeled the practice, then coached and supported until staff gained comfort using the tools by themselves. E+ nudged LBBC along by helping them find ways to intentionally talk about the use of tools organization-wide and measure usage through performance metrics. E+ also developed branded and tailored facilitation toolkits aligned with LBBC’s theory of change to make tools accessible and support ownership. This eased concerns about how quickly tools were being used across the organization and helped frame them as a long-term culture change, not an overnight shift.

Prioritize data use, not data collection. LBBC has a lot of good data, but it isn’t all being used or shared. We encouraged prepping for AARs with data, and we added questions like, “Who else in the organization would benefit from knowing what we learned?” and “Who will share learnings with them?” While these aren’t traditional AAR questions, they lay the groundwork for thinking about evidence-based strategies and building intentionality around how impact gets generated.

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The American Evaluation Association is hosting Organizational Learning and Evaluation Capacity Building (OL-ECB) Topical Interest Group Week. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our OL-ECB TIG 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@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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