If evaluation is your chosen career choice, you likely value data driven decisions to improve outcomes. If you have worked in the evaluation field for more than five minutes, you have also realized that while clients understand and appreciate this concept, actually getting them to use the reports and data you present to make ACTUAL changes that lead to improved outcomes is another story all together. Organizational context, history, politics, personalities, and just about every other factor surrounding a program can interfere with data being used to improve outcomes.
Many times evaluators report data and findings in a manner that isn’t understood or user friendly, and in those cases, lack of action based on the data is understood. However, evaluators are beginning to understand how to report data with info-graphics and through dashboards and summary reports that are easier to understand. They are based on the clients’ needs, desires, and requests. And in those cases, when the data is still ignored and business continues as usual without considering the findings of an evaluation, is when evaluators begin to question their calling. What changes am I really affecting? My reports sit on a desk of the Executive Director and gathers dust—why am I doing this? Wait, I stayed up all night to finish a report and it wasn’t even looked at? Yes, many of us have been there.
When you hit these spots (and it can happen at any point in your career, rookie to veteran), I recommend keeping the following things in mind:
- Remember, it’s not personal. Your client isn’t snubbing you, doesn’t think your contributions are not valuable, etc. It has nothing to do with you or your work lacking value.
- Be patient. When you are working with clients, especially those with multi-year or multiple reporting cycles, don’t give up on hammering the key points home. Figure out new ways to say it. Figure out new ways to present it. Figure out how to take a deep breath (inhale and exhale) when your client asks for something that you have already given them in a report (he/she didn’t read).
- Reframe the key findings until you find the one that gets attention. You might have to say the same findings many different ways, or over many different years, before it finally sinks in a way that is meaningful and actionable. Perhaps an issue that was minor in Year 1 (and yes, you reported on it and predicted that it would become bigger) becomes a bigger issue in Year 3 and the client is ready to hear more about it. Be thankful that you are ready.
- Let go. Your report may never be more than a coaster or an appendix. Don’t let this dissuade you from continuing to provide good work to other clients.
- Take the lessons learned to other evaluations. Perhaps you have a project that is particularly frustrating. Use it to figure out lessons about communication and presentation. What sorts of barriers could have been prevented and how? How might they be usurped in other evaluation projects?
Sometimes, evaluation can be an invigorating career—you provide information that can improve the lives of others. However, at other times, it can be down-right discouraging. And rather than throwing in the towel, I encourage you to just go buy an ice-cream cone and start again tomorrow.