The Evaluation Imperative

In the aftermath of September 11th, many of us felt the initial shock and sadness turn to a deeper quest to connect with those things that matter most: family, friends, freedom, community. We are also heading into a period of deep economic uncertainty. As guest editors, we’d like this issue of Shelterforce to help us keep our “eyes on the prize” of strong families and strong communities.

Evaluation is perhaps the most loaded, and often the most feared, word in a community developer’s vocabulary. Done well, evaluations require organizations to define what they care most about, align stakeholders around those values, enable them to know whether they are achieving the impact they seek, and communicate that impact to community constituents, funders and policymakers. Done poorly, evaluations are just a waste of time.

Until recently, community development practitioners were rarely expected to go beyond creating “stuff” – housing units, for example. The measures of success were the numbers of units created. That is what we focused on, what funders asked for, and what we counted – and counted well.

But it is no longer good enough to measure the numbers of houses, jobs, or trainings that you made happen. Increasingly, community builders face new and tougher questions: “So what? Did it end poverty, improve quality of life, foster self sufficiency? How do you know?” Equally challenging is the question, “Is your approach cost effective?”

These questions are part of a broader critique of the community development field that goes something like this: After more than 35 years of community development work, a lot of housing has been built and some economic development has occurred, but the systemic nature of poverty, wealth inequity, injustice, and power imbalances has not been deeply affected.

As a community development practitioner and a funder, we acknowledge that there are kernels of truth in this critique. And the questions that arise from it are fair and proper questions to ask. The problem is that the community development field is not yet prepared to go much beyond anecdotes in answering them. In particular, practitioners of community development have not been equipped with the funding and tools required to address the deeper “So what?” questions.

It is our hope that this special issue of Shelterforce will help community groups understand and value those tools – and participate in projects that are developing them further. The articles that follow explore both why evaluation is so important and how community organizations can conduct the kinds of evaluations that both answer the deeper questions about impact and enhance the quality of the work they do.

An old adage says: That which gets measured gets done. Community groups engage in a wide variety of activities, from organizing to providing decent affordable housing, better schools and parks, or vibrant commercial districts. But we all share a core goal: We seek to build healthier communities that enable people to take control over their lives and thrive. The right kinds of evaluation can help us measure that – and get it done.

Martin Johnson
President, Isles, Inc.

Mary Jo Mullan
Vice President, Programs,
The F.B. Heron Foundation

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