Participatory Evaluation is Key for Equitable Work

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When organizations dedicate a ton of time and energy to working directly with youth, investing additional resources into evaluating that work in meaningful ways can feel overwhelming. Evaluation is complicated and can be intimidating, but a recent study led by the Pace Center for Girls found that participatory evaluation methods are crucial for advancing equity within the organizational mission of non-profit programs.

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Participatory evaluation refers to methods of evaluating outcomes of programs in full partnership with participants of those programs. This means that the people your organization is serving are involved in designing research, collecting information, and analyzing data to tell you how well you’re meeting your goals. This approach recognizes that program participants are the best experts on their own experience. The report from the Pace Center includes data from 15 non-profit organizations that gained valuable insight into outreach efforts, staff hiring, and organizational structures through involving the people they serve in the evaluation process from start to finish.

Through participatory evaluations, the organizations in the study not only gained more accurate information about how community members were experiencing their services and programs, but also got feedback on ways to have more equitable practices throughout their organizational structure. Three specific examples of equitable practices that were advanced through evaluation are a focus on hiring staff members with similar experiences to program participants, asking for suggestions on improving operations whenever soliciting feedback, and using appropriate technology to regularly ask for input and provide accessible programming.

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The Pace Center report highlights that implementing small changes to solicit feedback from the people you serve can ultimately lead to big organizational shifts that allow program participants to be involved with important decisions at multiple scales. For example, asking for input about potential outreach strategies may lead to a realization that bilingual programming or translation services may benefit the community you’re serving.

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Additionally, creating a culture that promotes open conversation around organizational services can help community members speak up when things aren’t working for them or when they need help. Finally, organizations involved in the study reported that getting in the habit regularly checking in with participants about how they were doing prepared them to be flexible and resilient when they experienced big obstacles like the COVID-19 pandemic. The organizations that had already invested in reciprocal communication with those they serve were ready to meet people where they were, even when something as disastrous as a global pandemic popped up.

Evaluation is by no means easy, but starting by including program participants as co-creators in the process of generating data about your organization is a great place to start. From there, moving towards practices that emphasize partnership in decision-making over top-down approaches can lead to more effective programming and a more equitable impact. In short, investing in evaluation is worth the effort.