Reality TV Lessons Week: What Survivor Can Teach Us About Evaluation by Jen van Stelle

Hi, I’m Jen van Stelle, Co-Founder & Principal of Actionable Insights, LLC. As program evaluators, my business partner, Melanie Espino, and I help nonprofits and government agencies discover and act on data-driven insights.

Image of many hands on a tree trunk

I was a fan of Survivor, arguably the first successful reality show in the U.S., from about 2003 to 2011. For those who might not know, the show strands two groups of strangers in isolated locations; they have to build shelter, start and maintain a campfire, and find and cook food for themselves. There are challenges in which they initially compete in teams (“tribes”), and later individually, for rewards and to keep from being eliminated. People are voted out one by one until there is only one “Sole Survivor.” 

Teamwork and leadership are key. In general, the tribes that did better in the early team-oriented challenges had a leader emerge who was both able to direct others AND able to listen to and adapt ideas from team members. The teams that did poorly were often very dysfunctional.

Strong teamwork is just as important in research and evaluation as it is in any other setting. A good leader sets the tone for their team. By making it clear that everyone’s insights are welcomed and encouraged, I find we can nearly always generate better solutions than any one of us could have developed alone. 

Alliances require trust. Tribe members have to decide, on very little information, whom to trust. In a game only one person can win (unlike evaluation), there is a lot of fierce competition; in Survivor there have been many occasions of back-stabbing and betrayal. The strongest alliance I ever saw was between Amber and Boston Rob (who ended up marrying, and have stayed married for 16+ years so far).  Why was their alliance so strong? They trusted each other and never betrayed that trust.  

Similarly, I see our work as evaluators as being in an alliance with our clients. We each have to trust each other to be honest and forthright about what’s going on, what we find, what we can do (and not do), and so on. When clients truly know we have their backs and are working for their best interests, they are much more willing to reveal what’s really happening in their organization, and we are much more able to support their growth and improvement. 

Rad Resources:  

This week, AEA365 is hosting Reality TV Lessons Week where contributing authors share lessons learned from their guilty pleasure favorite TV shows. 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.

6 thoughts on “Reality TV Lessons Week: What Survivor Can Teach Us About Evaluation by Jen van Stelle”

  1. Catalina R Devarona

    Hello Jen Van Stelle,
    I really enjoyed how you compared the tasks of evaluation teams to the reality show Survivor. As an individual who just entered the world of program evaluation, these comparisons really help put the field in an understandable perspective. I agree evaluators have to have trust in each other as the trust demonstrated between tribemates on Survivor to make an evaluation run smoothly. Thank you for your post Jen!

  2. I personally seen a few seasons of Survivor, I can see where you are coming from when pointing out that teamwork is important to success between evaluators and their client. I believe you did a great job compare them into program evaluation. I agree how there is some similarities between the evaluator and the client, and how the client must trust that the evaluator is working for their best interest. Also how it is important to have strong teamwork to generate better solutions.

  3. Jesseca Thomas

    Hello, I also loved watching survivor as well. It was exciting to see how and what they did to survive. There are some similarities and differences between program evaluation. As you stated, working as a team is essential. But also, because there can only be one winner, they have to compete against each other. I loved the example you used about the previous competitors on the show who later married and how you related it to the example of the evaluator and the client. This couple chose not to be deceitful and backstab each other rather they helped each other succeed.

  4. Danielle Sanchez

    Hi Jen,
    I am a senior at Texas A&M University Central-Texas. I am currently taking a program evaluation course. Just like you, I also enjoy watching Survivor. I can see how certain skills on Survivor can relate to evaluators. When looking into programs, evaluators must work together to find a solution to the problem. To do that, they must first identify what the problem is. Clients can help out evaluators by telling them what is wrong with the program. Clients must be honest and seek an honest evaluation to be able to improve the program. There must be trust between the evaluators and the clients. Evaluators must also have a strong sense of teamwork so that they can come together and find a solution. For that to happen, there should be good leadership as well as cooperation.
    Danielle Sanchez

  5. While I understand that teamwork is essential to success between evaluators and their clients, I don’t think Survivor is the best example to use. While initially there seems to be teamwork involved between members of the tribe, there is a level of subterfuge and deceit apparent between members of the tribe, because the ultimate goal of the game is to be the last survivor. I’m sure that is not the goal and ultimate end for evaluators or clients.

  6. As a big OG survivor fan, this is great! Thanks for these reminders and also big thanks to whoever came up with this themed week.

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