How can evaluation support (not thwart) community development?

As evaluators, it’s tough to hear the criticisms levelled at evaluation by community development theorists and practitioners. But, listening to their their perspective, we can see how certain approaches to evaluation – coupled with certain expectations from funders – could thwart rather than support community development initiatives.

What’s the problem?

Traditional formative and summative evaluation don’t align with the iterative and emergent nature of community development. At the start of a community development initiative, it is not clear what it will look like, how it will be delivered, or even what outcomes it will aim to achieve. Initiatives continue to evolve to reflect community needs – they don’t become settled models with pre-determined outcomes.

Community development practitioners question how evaluations will be used in funding decisions, the usefulness of evaluation for their purposes, the resources involved, and whether evaluation is up to the task of capturing the value of their work.

What evaluation approaches might better serve community development?

There are more ways to approach evaluation than we can count. If evaluators are to truly support not thwart community development, we need to understand the context – the complex adaptive systems – into which interventions are developing and align our practice with the philosophy of community development by being organic, responding to community processes and sharing ownership.

In our experience evaluating community development, the following approaches are more appropriate and particularly useful.

  • Developmental evaluation (Patton, 2011): this approach recognises the iterative and emergent nature of community development and provides a framework for systematically supporting evidence-informed decision-making about the ongoing development of an initiative. Accountability is centred with those delivering the initiative and tied to their values.
  • Empowerment evaluation (Fetterman, Kaftarian & Wandersman, 2015): this approach was designed for community organisations, and gives them ownership of the evaluation, with the support of an evaluator as a ‘coach’. The principles align well with those of community development.
  • Principles focused evaluation (Patton, 2018): this approach enables an assessment of principles – whether they can guide the work, and whether they are useful, inspirational, developmental and evaluable. This is useful for community development, which is generally guided by principals not set program models.
Where can I read more?

Check out our article in a special edition of the Social Work and Policy Studies: Social Justice, Practice and Theory journal for more detail and a case study of how we’ve applied these approaches to a national community development initiative.

There is also a lot of other great content in the special edition, which comes at an important time for community development. As Howard and Rawsthorne identify in their editorial, we need to take care that as we benefit from the shift toward individual choice and control, we do not lose the value of collective ideas and actions. In their article, Hirsch et al. outline the implications of the changing face of disability and refugee services and Mapedzahama describes the significance of race in community development in Australia. These articles identify important considerations for those working with community in Australia, including evaluators.

You can also read our tips for monitoring and evaluation community development from the Ability Links NSW Community Development Resource Package, which was developed to think about inclusion of people with disability in community development. And our blog about our use of developmental evaluation with Dementia Australia.

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