Oregon Evaluators Week: The benefits of strength-based approaches in evaluation by Juliette Mackin

Hello fellow evaluators! I am Juliette Mackin from NPC Research in Portland, Oregon, and I have worked as an evaluator for 25 years. I am in this line of work to help people, programs, communities, and systems and am a strong believer in strength-based approaches to programming AND evaluation.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been training direct service staff, managers, and policy makers about the benefits of strength-based service delivery. The concepts and applications are broad, because they are about human nature: How do people and systems change? How can we facilitate healthy development, program improvement, and efficient and effective human service systems? A few core elements that underlie success are hope, connection, empathy, and identity.

  • Hope is the belief that change is possible and the ability to envision a different future.
  • Connection gives us the support we need to learn and change, the commitment to do our best, and the desire to contribute to our communities.
  • Empathy allows us to see the world from others’ perspectives and understand the challenges that others face, pushing us to engage and help.
  • Identity is how we see ourselves and how others see us – what makes us who we are and what brings us together.

Lessons Learned: Strength-based approaches are powerful for motivating and facilitating change by giving people hope, building relationships, and encouraging accountability. Applying these concepts to evaluation can yield meaningful outcomes.

Tree diagram of branches of the strengths-based developmental approach

As evaluators, we often look for gaps, challenges, difficulties, and problems. We make recommendations. We provide feedback about what is going wrong or what needs to be done better. It is easy to get caught up in the negatives.

Hot tip: Remember the positives. Set an explicit intention to seek and highlight strengths. Think about how we frame research questions, what data we gather, and how we present results. How will our work facilitate change, support people, allow people to hear our messages, and encourage them to use the information?

Here are some ways to build the positive into evaluation practice:

  1. Talk with people affected by the issue or receiving services. Ask what is going well. What positive qualities can they build on? What do they appreciate about the program or system?
  2. Talk with people providing services, administering programs, and making decisions. How will the evaluation findings impact the program, system, and community? What successes have they experienced?
  3. Document protective factors in addition to risk factors.
  4. Report strengths and accomplishments: for example, the proportion of youth who have never used drugs or alcohol, the proportion of participants who graduated.
  5. Provide a report section on commendations: What works well? What should the program or system continue to do?

This week, AEA365 is featuring posts from evaluators in Oregon. Since Evaluation 2020 was moved from Portland, OR to online, a generous group of Oregon evaluators got together to offer content on a variety of topics relevant to evaluators. 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.

8 thoughts on “Oregon Evaluators Week: The benefits of strength-based approaches in evaluation by Juliette Mackin”

  1. Rebecca J. Darling

    Hello Juliette,
    Thank you for your post. I am wrapping up a course on Program Inquiry and Evaluation for a graduate education program. I am grateful that I landed on your post for one of the last readings in the course.
    I really appreciate your “Strength-Based” approach and inquiry into how people and systems change. The illustration of the tree you included is a wonderful representation of the complexities of change, the breadth and depth of how to approach change, as you said with…” hope, connection, empathy and identity”…

    With the multifaced strengths based in the developmental approach, you remind us of the importance of bringing in the positive. Incredibly refreshing to hear especially with your years of research and work in this field.

    I am curious if you have found through your research that a positive approach is can actually be a bias? or as you stated the stakeholders are seeking a “deficit” approach to the evaluation research. With a focus on how programs change for the benefactors of a social program, I think a strength-based approach has the potential to make a difference in our cultures and communities.

    In the article, Evaluating outcomes: efficacy evaluation versus effectiveness evaluation, by Chen, H. (2005). Chen doesn’t speak about seeking the strengths in the process, but would an effectiveness approach be more effective when a focus on strengths is adopted as the research questions for the data process?
    Thank you again for your perspective. As I move forward with data-driven evaluation, I am going to keep this context in mind with the infrastructure you’ve outlined in your blog post.
    Take good care!

    Chen, H. (2005). Evaluating outcomes: efficacy evaluation versus effectiveness evaluation, (pp. 194-229). Chen, H. (2005).
    Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412985444

  2. Hello Juliette,
    Thank you for this post! I am very new to the world of program evaluation, and your explanation of strength-based evaluation approaches added a great deal to my understanding of the field. In most of my reading so far, evaluation has seemed to be more deficit oriented, so this idea was refreshing for me!
    I appreciate and can see many benefits to including a space for program strengths in the evaluation process. I especially appreciate your suggestions of including room for the participants’ and facilitators’ perceptions of the program as part of the evaluation. I see this as beneficial to the evaluation as whole. As you point out a strength -based approach would help by “motivating and facilitating change by giving people hope, building relationships, and encouraging accountability,” and I would add building trust and an attitude of cooperation between program participants, facilitators, evaluator, and other stakeholders. When people feel empowered and like their voice is being heard, they will likely be more inclined to fully cooperate. An entirely deficit focused evaluation could be alienating for facilitators and participants, especially if their perception is that the program is making a difference. On the other hand, I wonder about other outside stakeholders who might be looking for the deficit information. Could it be difficult to balance these? How do you promote the value of this approach to those stakeholders who might not see the value of it?
    Much of the reading that I’ve done lately on program evaluation has promoted a collaborative approach to evaluation (Kirkhart 2000, Shulha and Cousins 1997), and your suggestions for a strength-based approach compliments that idea, and seems like a great way to promote and facilitate that collaboration. I look forward to reading and learning more about strength-based evaluation.
    Thank you,
    Jennifer Guay

  3. Hello Juliette, I am a masters student in an Evaluation course from Queen’s University. It was so positive reading your article regarding the benefits of strength-based approaches to programming and evaluation. I was really moved by the statement you made, “strength-based approaches are powerful for motivating and facilitating change by giving people hope, building relationships, and encouraging accountability.” I teach grade 4 in an inner city school and the core elements of hope, connection, empathy and identity align very well with the school community I teach in and the practices I try to implement in my classroom. I think by implementing these practices in programming and evaluation it provides a solid foundation for organizations. By providing a positive feedback I feel as though people tend to respond better and are able to apply the feedback to their practice. By facilitating healthy development and program improvement the program is more effective and provides the support we need to learn and change. Thank you for your time, Elisha Gill

  4. Hello Juliette,

    Thank you for your post on the benefits of strength-based approaches in evaluation. You are right, as educators we often look for gaps, challenges, difficulties and problems and then we make recommendations about what is going wrong or what needs to be done better. We often get fixated on the negatives because that is what we are accustomed to think an evaluation is for.

    I enjoyed reading your view about how to build the positives into the evaluation practice. Remembering the positives highlights what is being done right and how it is positively impacting a program or individual. I am excited to take what I have learned from your post and highlight the strengths this September into my classroom.

  5. Hi Juliette,

    I am a new teacher in Windsor, Ontario and I am currently taking my Masters of Education through Queen’s University. Currently, I am enrolled in a Program and Evaluation course and this topic has been completely new to me. I am proud of what I have learned thus far, on my professional journey and continue to be a lifelong learner. Your article stood out to me because I had never thought of using a strength-based approach in evaluation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post as I was surprised that I had not learnt about this approach in my course. It also just goes to support the fact how there are always new and inspirational ideas out there. As I near the final steps of developing my own evaluation design for my seclude program, I am glad that I came across your article. I loved learning about this approach as I felt the elements hit home with the program I decide to evaluate. I have been evaluating the Ontario Summer Learning Program as I recently taught the program to students online this summer. I believe the few core elements that underlie success that you used in your post would be a great addition to my evaluation. As a new educator, I have been constantly reflecting on how to grow my professional community, collaborate with others and ensure I am helping my students develop of love of lifelong learning. Using these core elements relate to topics we teach our students. I found it interesting to read about how these elements help to build a positive view into the evaluation process. I related to how my students sometimes feel nervous or view the evaluation process as daunting and I realized that we are not much different from our students. When we are being evaluated or evaluating a program, we need to consider the importance of creating a positive environment where feedback is used in a positive, descriptive way. I cannot wait to include these core elements into my own program evaluation design in my course. This post was eye opening and I am appreciative to have learnt about these five steps, to help build that positive atmosphere during the evaluation process whether it be for a program or classroom setting.

    Best regards,

    Kathleen Emery

  6. Dear Juliette Mackin,
    It was so refreshing to read your article on strength based approaches in evaluation. I am a teacher and currently a Masters of Education student studying evaluation. I have always been a strong believer in strength based approaches to teaching and learning and found it interesting to compare this, with its merit in programming and evaluation. When I read your title have to admit that a strength based approach in evaluation seemed counter-intuitive at first, because I thought that program evaluation was more about looking at the weaknesses and defining the problems. From your article I can now see the subtle shift in thinking to include what aspects of a program are working and can be strengthened, or improved and built upon.
    One of your questions really resonated with me: “How will our work facilitate change, support people, allow people to hear our messages, and encourage them to use the information?” From what I’ve been learning, evaluation use, or the immediate application of evaluation findings for program improvement or decision making, is not always a priority during the evaluation process. If program improvement is the goal then when meaningful changes and adjustments can be made early on, rather than after the program is completed, the more effective the outcomes will be. In certain circumstances, involving stakeholders in the evaluation process can be an effective way to increase evaluation use. It makes sense then, that having a strength based approach in evaluation, which focuses on positive questions and highlights strengths for improvement, would help facilitate positive relationships and collaboration with stakeholders and others who are involved, and help to motivate buy-in, increase trust, and generate hope to create more effective outcomes.
    Going back to the comparison between strengths based approaches in school and in program evaluation – I have seen when there is too much focus on traits and skills that kids don’t have they can become disengaged and even resentful, while focusing on strengths creates greater engagement, levels of happiness and for some better learning outcomes. I wonder what similarities and differences you have noticed or have experienced between this scenario and program evaluation, or with stakeholders and people involved? Thank you for bringing this alternative way of approaching program evaluation to my attention. I will be looking at your list of ways to incorporate and build the positive into evaluation practice when I finalize my first evaluation design this week.
    Look forward to hearing from you,

  7. I am intrigued by the idea of focusing evaluation around a strength-based approach. I am a new student to evaluation, and I have found myself thinking about evaluation as a deficit type of process. I have kept this quote as a reference as I learn to help me remember what evaluation is. “Program evaluation is defined as the application of evaluation approaches, techniques, and knowledge to systematically assess and improve the planning, implementation, and effectiveness of programs (Chen, 2011, p.2). Looking at this quote again, after reading your article, helped me to see that evaluation can be so much more than just looking for the problems with a program. By focusing on the successes and strengths of the program an evaluator can create positive and lasting improvement in a program.

    When I think about systematically assessing a program I have thought that defining the weaknesses was the goal but after reading your article I began to see that you can just as effectively build a stronger program by switching your thinking to include a strength based approach therefore seeking out positive aspects of the program, which can be strengthened. By taking what is already working and building on it, the program will become that much more efficient and the targeted intervention can be the most effective.

    I was inspired to discover more about strength-based approaches and found an article by Hammond and Zimmerman that describes a strength-based approach as, “allowing one to see opportunities, hope and solutions rather than just problems and hopelessness” (p.3). By switching the paradigm from a deficit model to strength based an evaluator can change the focus of an evaluation to empower the program facilitators to focus on what is working in the program and support these strengths to inspire true growth.

    The idea that “strength-based approaches are powerful for motivating and facilitating change” was essential to my shift in the understanding evaluation. If the goal of evaluation is to “create positive and lasting improvement” in a program what better way to do this than to focus on an evaluation that motivates the program and stakeholder to change.

  8. Hi Juliette,
    My name is Jodi Masters and I am from Red Deer Alberta. I am currently enrolled in my Masters with Queen’s University in Ontario and my current course is Program Evaluation. Reading your post couldn’t have happened at a better time as we are in the final steps of a program evaluation that we created.
    The program that I have chosen to evaluate is the Breakfast program that my new school provides for all students every morning. I have chosen a formative approach to look for ways to improve the program. Your post has given me some great points to ponder as I move into the final steps, such as look for positives! My questions have all centered around finding the gaps. The 5 ways to build the positive inot evaluation practice are definitely going to guide my next steps.
    I would like to hear your thoughts on collaboration between the stakeholders and the evaluator. Do you find this a necessary or beneficial component when using a strength-based approach? From the key points that you have provided, I feel that collaboration would be essential, how else would the evaluator learn of perspectives and approach the process with empathy and connection. My wonder is does this involvement lead the evaluators to become too personally involved and does that involvement distort the evaluation results?

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

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