The Evaluation Center at WMU Week: Evaluation Café: Four Decades of Learning and Growth by Samantha Hooker

Hi, I’m Samantha Hooker, and I serve as senior marketing specialist with The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University. One of the exciting parts of my job is overseeing and marketing our long-standing speaker series, Evaluation Café. It’s a space for evaluators to come together to learn about and discuss new ideas.

Let’s rewind to the 1970’s when the series was born. Back then (when it was called the Sack Lunch Seminar), it was a small gathering, a meeting of minds between our center staff and members of our campus community. Fast forward to today, and we’ve come a long way. Over the past ten years alone, we’ve welcomed more than 3,000 guests to the Evaluation Café. Along the way, we’ve collected data, analyzed the results, and made continuous improvements.

Here are some valuable lessons we’ve learned on this journey:

Lesson 1: If You Build It, Evaluators Will Come

In 2020, everything changed. The world around us shifted, and the typical in-person model was suddenly no longer viable. That’s when we decided to embrace technology that would enable us to continue virtually, and it turned out to be a game-changer.

This shift allowed us to maintain the intimate and collegial feel that our guests loved while also opening the door to speakers from around the world. Our virtual option significantly increased attendance, too. From 2013 to 2020, we were accustomed to an average of 150 guests per semester. With the introduction of the hybrid model, that number has almost doubled. Our current fall 2023 semester is on track to be our largest yet, with nearly 400 attendees – a testament to the success of our hybrid approach and the fact that evaluators love to talk shop, especially if you make it easy!

Lesson 2: Centering Diversity and Equity

Selecting speakers for Evaluation Café isn’t just about knowledge and experience. It’s also an opportunity to amplify diverse voices from various sectors, backgrounds, and underrepresented populations. With the pivot to a hybrid format, we’ve made the opportunity to attend the Eval Café more equitable. Now, anyone can join our sessions virtually, and all our recordings are openly accessible on the Evaluation Café website. This ensures that our valuable content is available to everyone, anytime.

Lesson 3: Backing Our Words with Actions

We respect the time and effort our presenters invest in sharing their knowledge. To show our appreciation and understanding of their busy schedules, in 2022, we began offering an honorarium for presenters. It’s a simple yet important gesture to acknowledge that we honor their time and contribution to the field.  

Lesson 4: Ensuring Consistency

Managing the Evaluation Café is a significant undertaking. It involves reaching out to potential speakers, organizing, and tracking information, creating marketing materials, and promoting the series. In the past, these responsibilities shifted and were divided across various staff members and students. However, starting this fall, we’ve dedicated a single coordinator to these tasks, and that coordinator is yours truly. This dedicated role allows for more consistency and ensures that the knowledge and organization behind Evaluation Café have a constant home.

I hope to see you at an upcoming Evaluation Café session. If you can’t make it in person, no worries! You can always catch up by viewing past series recordings on our website. Make sure to register for our Evaluation Café mailing list so you’re always in the loop. And if you’re interested in presenting, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’re always excited to welcome new voices and insights.


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