Hi, I’m a program evaluator

The most popular question at social events seems to be some variation of “what do you do for a living?” In my experience, the topics I’ve focused on thus far in my career can shut down a dinner party conversation faster than you can ask what’s on the menu. Here’s a spark notes version – homelessness, anxiety, sexual violence against women, substance use, child welfare, and juvenile justice. Apparently these are topics that not everyone feels comfortable discussing at happy hour. I’ve also found that people are not that excited to discuss data or statistics. Sound familiar?

Given these reactions, I’ve contemplated developing a professional happy hour-friendly alter ego. But that would be doing a disservice to our wonderful field of evaluation and my quest to champion the implementation of evaluation and data-driven decision-making. Instead, my response usually sounds something like, “I’m a program evaluator, which means that I help organizations understand their data so they can make their programs even more effective.” My email signature is similar and says that “I make data accessible to improve outcomes and communicate impact.”

3At this point the conversation usually goes one of three ways:

  • The person stares at me blankly and the conversation is steered in another direction
  • The other person thinks that I’m an auditor or accountant
  • The person seemingly loves data and nonprofits as much as I do and asks lots of questions

Here’s the thing – People use data and evaluation in their daily lives. Let’s consider Facebook as an example. Facebook users rate the value of their posts by looking at the number of likes, shares, and comments often on a daily, if not more regular, basis. This is evaluation! People also cook recipes and make adjustments to the ingredients when something doesn’t turn out as desired. This is data-driven decision-making!

So this is what I’m wondering:

  • If people use data and evaluation in their everyday lives, why don’t people know more about program evaluation? We just finished the International Year of Evaluation (2015)!
  • How are we talking about and marketing evaluation as a profession?
  • As an evaluator, how do you define evaluation and how do you answer the question, “what do you do for a living?”

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