Reflections shared by ABSI Connect’s network weaver community
Recently, ABSI Connect started a little experiment: a monthly call with a group of wonderful people we’re calling “network weavers.” These are folks who inhabit two worlds:
They are, to varying degrees, well-versed in the language, tools, and processes associated with social innovation (words like “labs,” “developmental evaluation,” “emergence,” “systems thinking”...).
They are also working on the ground to connect and support change-makers within a specific sector, community, or issue space -- one where the jargon of social innovation may not always resonate, even with change-makers who are doing incredibly creative and collaborative work (which we might describe as social innovation).
Through their relationships, these network weavers are helping to build connections, share stories, and translate knowledge and insights between the communities and organizations they work with and the broader social innovation community. Our calls are still in an exploratory stage as we work to see where this peer community goes and how we might support each other’s work, but I’ve been impressed and encouraged by the insights and questions shared over the first few months. I’m also really excited about the work each of these network weavers are doing (stay tuned for future posts in which we’ll introduce some of them to you!).
Last week, seven members of the network weaver group came together online to discuss a topic that’s pertinent to their work: what are we learning about evaluation? More specifically, how can we support change-makers in our province to bring strategic learning and evaluative thinking into their work? Knowing that this is a question many other change-makers will find relevant, we thought we’d share a few of the examples, insights, and resources that surfaced during our conversation.
Evaluation in Practice: Examples
Pieter de Vos shared his experience with Eval Lab, a collaboration between the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations, Community University Partnership, and the Community Development Unit at the Government of Alberta (where Pieter works).
The Eval Lab was a series of six sessions for a cohort of nonprofit leaders and managers. The goal: to help those leaders integrate evaluative thinking into their organizations’ practices for improved learning and decision making. Lab participants learned practical pieces of theory including evaluative thinking, contribution vs. attribution, logic models and their limitations, and theories of change. They also began to reflect deeply on the assumptions and logic behind their organization’s mandate, vision, and actions. By the end of the six sessions, nonprofit leaders came away with some key areas in which they could start to embed strategic learning into their work, and an evaluation plan (learning journey) to help them do this. Pieter and colleagues hope to adapt this series of modules for a new cohort of change-makers this coming year, this time with a focus on coalitions.
Rural Mental Health Project
Jessica Turowski gave an overview of the rural mental health project, a CMHA Alberta Division initiative working to build capacity and create a supportive online network for local animators and community groups in rural Alberta. To date, the project has trained 24 animators, who are each going on to convene leaders and coalitions in their communities. Over time, these animators and coalitions will generate locally-driven solutions to support mentally healthy communities, and will be able to tap into the experiences and tools shared within a network of animators doing similar work in other communities.
Strategic learning is embedded into the rural mental health project’s design; training modules and other aspects of the project are prototyped, piloted, and revised on an ongoing basis. As the project evolves, the team adheres to a set of guiding principles to inform their work and help them make sure they’re on the right track. They are making use of a variety of developmental and principle-based evaluation tools and approaches, constantly asking critical questions about how their project activities align with and support their underlying principles and values.
Evaluation in Practice: Reflections
A few themes and insights emerged throughout our conversation:
How the social / environmental sector talks about evaluation needs to change. Bringing evaluative thinking into our work can help us reconnect to our purpose and reflect on what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether it’s working. It can support important learning journeys for individuals and organizations. And yet, many organizations fear evaluation or see it as nothing more than an obligatory step for their grant reports.
Organizations have become increasingly fragmented; leaders and staff may have only fuzzy understandings of how their daily work connects to the principles and values of their organization. We need leaders who are reflective, able to think carefully about the values they bring to their work, how those values lead to action, and what changes result from their actions. Evaluative thinking can support this.
When we’re helping change-makers learn evaluative thinking, starting too theoretically or too conceptually can be off-putting. Theories feel more tangible and practical if we start with grounded examples from participants’ experience, then apply what they know to a model or framework to help them expand their understanding.
Turnover is a huge issue related to strategic learning, particularly in coalitions and other “messy” forms of organizing for social change. We’d like to find ways to help community coalitions better retain their expertise in evaluation, along with the rich learnings from their evaluative work.
Evaluation in Practice: Resources
Here are a few evaluation-related resources that were mentioned during our conversation:
The faculty of extension at the University of Alberta is offering a week-long course and free public lecture in early June: Evaluation in the Community Context.
This webinar from Tamarack, featuring Michael Quinn Patton and Mark Cabaj, gives a helpful overview of principle-based evaluation. Several network weavers on our call mentioned relying on Mark Cabaj’s expertise to support their evaluation work.
The Alberta Community Support Network is a group of retired professionals offering their expertise and time to nonprofits. They might be a good resource for some nonprofits seeking evaluation-related support.
How do the above experiences, insights, and resources resonate with your work? How have you used evaluation to support your personal or organizational learning journey? Tweet us @ABSIConnect or send me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This blog post was written by Naomi Mahaffy, ABSI Connect’s Facilitator. ABSI Connect works to connect, align, celebrate, strengthen, and learn from Albertan change-makers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face. Do you have a story, idea, or insight you’d like to share with the ABSI Connect community? Contact Naomi.