Program Design TIG Week: Evaluations for Program Development: Lessons Learned from Six Months of Virtual Community-Building by Asma M. Ali

I am Asma M. Ali, of AA & Associates LLC and the Sinai Urban Health Institute in Chicago. Greetings from the Windy City! As a community-based and culturally responsive evaluator, many of my evaluation projects are now being conducted virtually. There are both advantages and disadvantages to conducting these types of evaluation on-line. Virtual projects extend the participation of both evaluators and participants beyond traditional geographies. At the same time, as featured in a recent AEA 365 blog by American University Masters students, evaluators have quickly had to learn new participatory tools to continue their projects amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Like other evaluators, I began several relationships with evaluation clients and stakeholders to support their new, different, or extended program development projects since the beginning of the pandemic. Program development conducted virtually involves building trust and community relationships in different ways than in person. In these distanced times, some of the basics of establishing new relationship are more important than ever while the virtual environment has required some adjustments to tried-and-true community-building and relationships. This post highlights lessons learned, along with some helpful resources, from 6-months of developing entirely virtual relationships to facilitate community-based evaluation projects:

Lessons Learned:  

  • Creating a Vision– Creating a project vision involves working with internal and external project stakeholders to identify needs and opportunities for change. Patricia Moore Shaffer’s piece on participatory logic models provides an overview of this common evaluation tool for supporting a common vision for the evaluation project. 
  • Team Building- Team building online supports team morale and reduces feelings of isolation from less daily interactions with others. Building a project team involves much more than formal online interactions. Virtual relationships must happen on camera, so people can feel connected, so cameras should stay on as much as possible. Several sites, including this compilation of activities for online teambuilding, feature resources for online team-building. Innovative virtual icebreakers and informal gatherings or happy hours can also support team building and future successes. 
  • Maintaining Successes– Project hand-off may involve multiple meetings and additional evaluation dissemination techniques. Written materials and reports may need accompaniment of virtual Zoom meetings, townhalls, and press releases to engage stakeholders and community members. You may also need to engage more strategies to ensure the project findings are known to stakeholders and others. The CDC provides a useful guide for disseminating evaluation findings to various stakeholders. 

How have you changed your own evaluation practice to ensure virtual success in community-based projects? 

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Program Design TIG Week with our colleagues in the Program Design Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Program Design 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.

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